SPECIAL REPORT: Should Northampton’s Sekhemka statue be sold off?

Sekhema statue
Sekhema statue

Losing accreditation from the Arts Council will not stop a £14m renovation of Northampton’s museum and art gallery from going ahead, the borough council says.

The authority is due to sell the Sekhemka, a highly-valued Egyptian limestone figure, once a centrepiece display in the town’s museum, at a Christies auction on July 10.

The proceeds gained from the sale will help pay for a ‘state-of-the-art’ redevelopment and expansion of the Guildhall Road museum into an old gaol block.

However the move has been publicly denounced by both the Arts Council of England and the Museums Association, which both said the move could risk the museum losing its accredited status and, in turn, its ability to apply for major grant funding from various bodies.

This week a borough council spokesperson confirmed it would consider using its own budget to complete the renovation.

The spokesman said: “If money is not available from other funders, the council will use the money from the sale of the statue and the council’s annual capital budget to deliver the expansion, but over a longer period.”

The museum extension would see new galleries and facilities created, showcasing 3,000 pieces including works by artists such as David Hockney and Sir Edward Burne Jones that are rarely seen.

It will also include 400 sq ft of space for retail, food and drink.

A Facebook poll created by the Chronicle & Echo this week saw the majority of people want to keep the 2,700 BC funerary monument – which depicts a court official clutching beer, bread and cake – in the town.

But some people, including reader Jason Stonehouse, were in favour. He said: “I think it’s a good idea. The museum is in need of a re-fit and every penny made can be spent on helping people understand more about our history.”

Lisa Coulson said: “Maybe then we’ll get a museum and art gallery as good as the free ones in Birmingham.”

Borough council leader David Mackintosh (Con, Rectory Farm) said the county council’s proposed move from County Hall to Angel Street freed up the former gaol block for the museum expansion

“The Sekhemka will play a big part in funding this,” he said. “Coupled with other major schemes announced recently, we now have a vision that will make Northampton a major destination for cultural and heritage, which can only be good for our town’s future.”

CAMPAIGN GROUP CALLS FOR SALE TRANSPARENCY

Selling Sekhemka would put Northampton on the cultural map... but for all the wrong reasons, says the group hoping to keep the ancient statue in the town.

The borough council believes the artefact will raise millions of pounds at a Christies auction on July 10, which will in turn help pay for part of a £14m renovation of the town’s museum and art gallery.

But the short-term gain will be a longer-term loss, according to members of the Save Sekhemka Action Group which is now seeking to hire a barrister to fight its cause.

Susan Edwards, of the group, said: “The sale is criticised by every single cultural body.

“All around the world now, Northampton has got the most awful name.”

The Save Sekhemka Group is calling on Northampton people to help its fight to block the July 10 Christies sale.

They need to raise £2,000 in order to pay for a barrister, that they say would look into the legality of the bid to sell it and would convince both the council and the Marquis of Northampton to be ‘more transparent’ in their currently ‘confidential’ dealings.

They believe that the Sekhemka was gifted to the people of Northampton as part of a ‘Deed of Gift’ signed by the 4th Marquis of Northampton in 1880, as part of a ‘geological collection’ of Egyption items.

However legal representatives of the current Marquis said the Sekhemka was not covered as part of the ‘gifted’ collection, though they say he is entitled to a portion of its sale.

“If we can’t stop this sale, then what we would like to do is to postpone it,” Susan Edwards said.

“If they can, we will keep on going with this because we believe it is wrong, unfair and unethical.

“If they can come up with a document that says this sale is perfectly legal, we will retire gracefully, but they haven’t convinced us yet.”

The council said 173 people took part in a consultation on the Sekhemka and 71 percent wanted the money reinvested in the town’

But Gunilla Loe, another member of Save Sekhemka, who was removed from her role as chair of the Friends of Northampton Museum and Art Gallery in part due to her opposition of the sale, said the consultation did not reflect how the people of the town felt about the item.

“Parties of children went in there all the time to learn about Egypt,” she said. “How could they judge how many people went in to see it? We always knew it was there and that it was important.”

To get in touch with the group email sekhemka@gmail.com.

COUNCIL ANSWERS THE MAIN QUESTIONS

1) Are you prepared to show the documents and agreements made with the Marquis of Northampton to any member of the public who asks to see them? If not, why not?

The details of the agreement are confidential between Lord Northampton and the borough council, but we can confirm that 55% of the sale will go to the council and 45% will go to Lord Northampton.

2) Is it true the original 1880 deed between the Marquis of Northampton and the borough council, which gifts the Sekhemka to the borough of Northampton, has been lost? If so, how can the council be sure it is entitled to sell the statue?

The council’s ownership of Sekhemka has been confirmed following advice from lawyers, who are satisfied we have legal right to proceed with the sale. We do not have any deed specifically relating to Sekhemka.

3) The same deed, signed on August 9, 1880, states that the items would be gifted to the people of Northampton “at all time for ever hereafter” to exhibit the same collections freely to the public and at no time to dispose of any part of the collections.

Our understanding is that the deed does not relate to Sekhemka, but refers to other items in the collection.

4) Axa Art Insurance Ltd has said the cabinet display previously used to house Sekhemka in Northampton Museum was ‘adequate’, though the reason initially given for keeping Sekhemka from public viewing was because that cabinet and room needed upgrading. Why was it taken off display? And why, when the Friends of Northampton Museum and Art Gallery offered £8,000 to buy a new cabinet, was the offer not taken up?

Sekhemka was taken off display over three years ago by the previous Lib Dem administration. We believe it was due to concerns over security and to protect the statue.

5) At a previous council meeting, the borough council said £10,000 was spent on legal fees in relation to the disposal of the statue. However on the full council meeting of December 9, 2013, this amount was announced as £18,782. Why?

At the meeting the question was asked how much the council had spent on legal fees in reaching the agreement with Lord Northampton. The answer to that question was £10,000. The figure of £18,782 in December referred to all legal fees up to that point, which includes the legal fees with Lord Northampton.

6) Has the council placed a reserve on the Sekhemka sale?

Yes, but we have been advised not to publicly disclose the figure.

ACCREDITATION IS KEY TO FUNDING

A key argument against the sale of the 4,500-year-old statue is that doing so would risk losing Northampton Museum and Art Gallery’s accredited status.

The Arts Council of England and the Museum Association have previously stated the sale goes against their ethical codes. Galleries that lose accreditation might be unable to borrow exhibits from other accredited museums or qualify for grants from bodies such as the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Sharon Heal, of the Museums Association, says the Sekhemka sale risks Northampton being shunned by the arts community.

“The key thing is reputational damage,” she said. “It’s not just about losing trust from financiers, it’s about losing public trust as well. Any family that has donated items to the museum in the past will be wondering what the future of that item is.”

STATUE CONCERN ‘EXAGGERATED’

Only a ‘well meaning but relatively small’ group oppose the sale of Sekhemka, according to solicitors acting on behalf of Lord Northampton.

The current Marquess Spencer Compton, whose ancestor of the same name acquired the Sekhemka in 1850, would stand to make 55 per cent of the sale at Christies on July 10.

The Chronicle and Echo’s requests for an interview with the peer this week were turned down in favour of a letter from William Sturges Solicitors.

It states: “The report that the statue was a popular item in the museum have exaggerated the concern in Northampton at the disposal of the statue.”

It adds that only a small group have opposed the sale.

But the letter also states that it was “far from certain” that the Lord, could have prevented the 4,500-year-old artefact from being sold. If the dispute over who owned the statue had continued, it says: “It would have been a protracted and very expensive litigation, which was not in the interests of either Northampton Borough Council and its ratepayers or Lord Northampton and his family.”

But like the borough council, the Lord’s solicitor stated its client could not discuss the terms of their joint agreement due to a confidentiality clause.