Northampton

Northampton Sekhemka statue sale: Council 'warned by lawyers'

Sekhemka statue
Image caption The Sekhemka statue sold at auction for more than £15m in 2014

A council that pocketed £8m by selling an ancient Egyptian statue had been warned by lawyers not to sell it for "financial motives", it has emerged.

Northampton Borough Council maintains it sold the Sekhemka figurine to help fund a £14m extension to its museum and art gallery.

The council has refused a BBC Freedom of Information request for its pre-sale legal advice.

It has now emerged lawyers flagged up a number of risks before the sale.


Timeline of Sekhemka sale

Image copyright Christies
Image caption The limestone statue is 30in (76cm) high and it was "gifted" to Northampton in 1880
  • Spencer Compton, the second Marquis of Northampton, acquired Sekhemka during a trip to Egypt in 1850
  • The 30in (76cm) high limestone statue was "gifted" to Northampton in 1880
  • 2012: Northampton Borough Council learned the full value of Sekhemka
  • July 2014: Sekhemka is bought at auction at Christie's in London by an international buyer
  • August 2014: Northampton Museums had its accreditation removed by Arts Council England
  • August 2014: Egypt's Antiquities Ministry challenged the sale
  • March 2015: British government imposes a temporary export ban
  • April 2015: Export ban is lifted

The 4,000-year-old statue, believed to be of a high court official, sold for £15.76m when it was auctioned at Christie's of London. It had been expected to make about £6m.

Of the money raised, £6,741,000 was paid to Lord Northampton and £782,500 to Christies, leaving more than £8m for the council.

Image copyright Christies
Image caption The statue of Sekhemka shows him reading a scroll and would have been placed in his tomb

According to a separate information request, the council spent nearly £58,000 on external legal advice.

However, it has decided to withhold that advice, claiming while it "appreciates there is a strong public interest in the legal advice it received prior to the sale" the guidance it received "remains legally privileged".

As a result of the sale, Northampton Museum was stripped of its accreditation by Arts Council England, which has left it ineligible for a range of grants and funding.

A summary of the legal advice, seen by the BBC, reveals the council was warned it was at risk of losing both funding and the support of the Museums Association.

The legal advice also warned "that any sale should not be financially motivated except in exceptional circumstances".

'Unethical'

Alistair Brown, policy officer at the Museums Association, said: "I can't comment on the council's own legal advice.

"However, at the time, the (association's) ethics committee stated that there had clearly been insufficient consultation on the sale and the council had changed their plans several times about how the funds would be used.

"Northampton Borough Council was barred from membership of the Museums Association for a minimum of five years in 2014 for the unethical sale of the Sekhemka statue - so that decision still stands."

The council confirmed it sold Sekhemka to raise money, although it did not claim any "exceptional circumstances".

"We had strong legal advice that we could sell Sekhemka and that we were doing so in the right way," a council spokesman said.

"We accepted all the risks around the sale but chose to do so to realise several million pounds to invest in the future of Northampton Museum, where a major expansion programme that will guarantee its future is under way."

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