The controversial Sekhemka: Egyptian statue stirs debate

Activists, along with the Egyptian government, have been pushing for months to extend an export ban on the Sekhemka statue

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The export ban placed by the UK government on an ancient Egyptian statue, which has been riled in controversy following its sale to an anonymous buyer last year, expired on Friday.

Activists, along with the Egyptian government, have been pushing for months to extend the ban on the Sekhemka statue out of fear that if it leaves the UK, it may never be put on public display again as a private collector purchased the piece.

“The museum is not entitled to sell this item and we are working with an Egyptian NGO [Save Sekhmka Action Group] in its effort to return this treasure to Egypt,” Spokesman for the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Badr Abdel Aty told Al Arabiya News.

“We are doing our utmost efforts to retrieve it because it is part of Egyptian legacy and history,” said Abdel Aty, who has been involved in efforts to retrieve the statue.

The Egyptian government even tried to raise $23 million to buy the statue, which in turn could have extended the export ban.

“This export bar could be further extended until March 29 if a serious intention to raise funds to purchase the statue is made before August 28,” a spokeswoman for the UK Department for Media, Culture and Sport told the BBC earlier this month.

Activists go to court

The Save the Sekhemka Action Group, which has been operating since August 2012, began legal proceedings on Thursday to keep it available in public display, the BBC reported.

After an anonymous buyer purchased the statue in 2014, the group urged British authorities to negotiate towards placing the statue on loan to a major British museum.

Another option the group advocated for was for the statue to be given as a gift to a British museum “which can look after the statue until it may, ultimately, find a secure home in an Egyptian museum,” Gunilla Loe, a spokesperson for the group told Al Arabiya News.

“By selling it, Northampton Borough Council deprived its museum of accreditation which means the museum cannot access outside funds for their work, they will only have whatever grant the Council gives them,” Loe added.

The Northampton Museum did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Who is Sekhemka?

The 4,500 year-old artifact is a statue of a court official and his wife. It was reportedly acquired by the Marquis of Southampton during his visit to Egypt in 1850.

“It is unique! There is no other such statue in the world,” Loe said describing Sekhemka.

“There is a similar statue of a scribe in the Brooklyn Museum, New York but that statue is damaged and not on display - it is missing its head and part of its torso. This is why Sekhemka is important: for research and for appreciation by the public because it is beautiful,” she added.

“It should never have been sold, it was in a public collection in public ownership and that is where it should have stayed.”

Loe said the group received unconfirmed reports claiming that the buyer is in fact Qatari while the Arts Council England and the Department of Culture, Media, and Sports refused to reveal the identity of the buyer.

Asked whether the group would discuss reaching a middle ground, Loe said: “We cannot negotiate with a vacuum which is why we urge the DCMS, the UK Foreign Office and Arts Council England to start negotiations with the buyer. They all know who he or she is.”