A 4,000-year-old Ancient Egyptian statue of “Sakham-Ka” was given as a present to England’s Northampton Museum on the condition of keeping it on show to public and not to sell in under any circumstances.
In 2012, Northampton Museum tried to sell the statue for the first time, but facing a public backlash in Britain and the owners’ disapproval, the process was stopped.
In 2014, museum needed some financial income for renovation and expansion, so again, they set a deal with the statue’s inheritors, descendants of the British aristocrat who originally brought the statue to Britain, to sell the statue. The income would then be divided equally between both partners.
In July 2014, the statue was sold for £15.76m to a Qatari millionaire in an auction, during which a protest was held in front of the auction house, accusing the museum of selling public property and preventing them from gaining use from it.
Immediately after the statue’s sale, large numbers of people started demonstrating against the museum in London, believing that heritage cannot be sold for personal interests, and it belongs to all humanity.
The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), an independent body administered by the Arts Council in England, stated its recommendation to the Department for Culture, Media and Sports in London to prevent the statue from being sold to a private owner.
Responding to calls for the prevention of the sale, Britain’s Culture Minister Ed Vaizey prevented the statue’s transferral from London to Qatar for a year until July 2015. Moreover, a fine was also applied on the Northampton Museum.
The only way the statue can be kept in London is by having a buyer that would be willing to re-buy it from the “mystery buyer”.
“If a UK buyer makes a matching offer to the current owner, and the owner rejects the offer, then the Secretary of State could decide to refuse to grant an export licence,” a ministry spokesman told Ahram Online earlier this year.
Soon after, a group of both British and Egyptian citizens established the “Save Sakham-Ka Action Group”. A lawsuit was also filed to prove that “Sakham-Ka” belongs to the UK, and to prevent its transferral to Qatar.
In response to the sale, the UK’s Museums Associations (MA) barred the Northampton Museum from its membership for at least five years. According to the MA’s code of ethics, the sale of the statue is a “clear violation of public trust”.
“At a time when public finances are pressured it is all the more important that museum authorities behave in an ethical fashion in order to safeguard the long-term public interest,” said David Fleming, chairman of the MA’s ethics committee. “Museums have a duty to hold their collections in trust for society. They should not treat their collections as assets to be monetised for short-term gain.”
Until now, several calls were made to UK Prime Minister David Cameron to prevent the statue from leaving Britain until the final legal call is out. Moreover, calls are urgently asking Egyptian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb to personally contribute to stopping the statue from leaving Britain.
An informed source close to the Egyptian presidency told Daily News Egypt that President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi is following the case personally, and now has a file with full details of the case. Calls are ongoing for Britain and Egypt’s Prime Ministers to reach a suitable solution.
Activists fight for the statue to return home
Heba Saa’d, a member of the “Save Sakham-Ka Action Group”, talked to Daily News Egypt about the role the group has been playing in the statue’s return to Egypt.
As a group of activists, what are you demanding from the Museum?
We want to get the statue, which is an Egyptian property, to Egypt. If the museum doesn’t want it, it has to go back to its homeland. That’s through several steps, starting with keeping the statue in England until March 2016 when the law suit is over. That would give us some time to prove our ownership. The moment the statue leaves London, it would be almost impossible for us to take it back.
Heritage and traditions cannot be captured in the hands of one man or one family, it’s owned by the public, and taking that away from them is a crime. We also demand UNESCO to interfere in preventing such a crime. According to the seventh article in its law published in 1970, which states that “the property of artistic interest, such as: (i) pictures, paintings and drawings produced entirely by hand on any support and in any material(excluding industrial designs and manufactured articles decorated by hand; (ii) original works of statuary art and sculpture in any material; (iii) original engravings, prints and lithographs; (iv) original artistic assemblages and montages in any material”, it’s illegal to sell the statue. Our third demand is for the British human rights organisations to help us save the people from being deprived of their cultural heritage.
How do you apply your demands?
First, we started a huge media campaigns across several media platforms in Egypt and England. We want to voice our demands to as many people as possible to gain the mass support which might add pressure on the British government. Secondly, we contacted both the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Antiquities to help us with the cause, and recently we sent a call to President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to personally interfere with the talks between both sides.
How did the ministries react with your calls?
We found massive support from both ministries. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Badr Abdelatty helped us to contact UNESCO, and he’s constantly communicating with the Egyptian Ambassador in London to follow up on the updates.
On the other hand, the Ministry of Antiquates tried communicating with Ed Vaizey to solve the issue, but he refused to, stating that the only way Sakham-Ka wouldn’t leave England is by providing strong evidence that proves the Egyptian property for the statue within the remaining days. He also stated that even if Egypt buys the statue from the Qatari woman who bought it, they would still keep it in London, and I don’t understand why!
What are you planning on doing if the statue is delivered to Qatar?
What we know until now is that the person who bought the statue is from the ruling family in Qatar, but we won’t give up, no matter how powerful they are, and we will keep trying to until we get it back.
Where do you get the funds for the group from?
We are self-funded. Each person has a duty towards his country and this is our duty to do so, if the president is busy fighting terrorism, we shall handle the rest of the corruption occurring in the country. This is our rule and what we have to do as a pay back to Egypt.
What is the next step for the group?
We’re planning to go wider and start seeking the countless amount of illegal smuggled antiquities to get them back in cooperation with the ministry of antiquities and foreign affairs. But it’s so hard to do, especially with the gangs and the help they get from the UK.