Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Searching for the money tree — part two

Sekhemka on museum display in the 1950's
photo: Bibilovski
You don't miss your water 'til the well runs dry. The statue of the "inspector of the scribes" Sekhemka, deaccessioned by the Northampton Museum to raise funds for remodelling and sold for £15.76 million (pre-sale estimate £4 -6 million). Although the statue had not been on display for five years, and in that time no one had asked to see it and an agreement had been reached with the estate of the original donor about the sale, it became a highly controversial issue. Now, the British government has deferred the granting of an export permit to the foreign buyer (Ahram online) hoping that a British buyer could take over the purchase and that deferment might be extended if there is still a serious effort to raise the money at its deadline. Egypt, of course, wanted it repatriated.

The Ahram Online article includes:
""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.
"He refused to reveal the foreign buyer's identity for legal reasons."
Privacy laws forbid the identity of a buyer or a seller to be revealed without their permission, and this makes a lot of sense: the sale of part of a collection cannot be compared to the sale of a car or a firearm where a chain of ownership is required. It can be an embarrassment for a cash-strapped owner and could present that owner with business or family repercussions; the identity of a new buyer could make them a target for robbery; and people mostly do not like their financial affairs published for all to see. Yet a number of archaeologists publicly criticize those who would prefer to obey such laws (without even mentioning the existence of such laws). If there is any official criminal investigation about the object, however, a warrant can be obtained to free such information to the police.

Northampton Museum is mostly noted for having the world's largest collection of shoes, and in the photograph Sekhemka seems out of place among the pictures on the wall. As a collector, I will sell off something in my collection to raise money to buy something more important to me. Mostly, I will sell off things that could easily be replaced by something similar, but if the new purchase is important enough, I might part with something almost as important if there is no other solution. After my wife passed away, I was in severe financial difficulties and I sold my dekadrachm of Syracuse for $7,000 in order to rid myself of debts and finance a move. The most important consideration in selling part of my collection is the relevance of the object to my current collecting interests. Context is everything. Even as a non-profit, a museum is still a business: renovations might be needed; expansions to the museum can have positive effects on the numbers of visitors, and how much they will spend at the museum gift shop, cafeteria, etc.

Yet, I agree with a temporary export permit deferment because if the needed funds are raised then the country has provided solid evidence of the importance of the statue to the British people. The Northampton museum and the estate will retain the benefits of the sale. People might complain, but talk is cheap. Northampton Museum lost its accreditation because of the sale and I think that this was a wrong move. If I ever asked a bureaucrat for business advice I would hope that friends and family would seek psychological help for me. My friend Robert is a coin dealer and the City of Calgary insists that each coin must be recorded for a police database. He missed a golden opportunity when the City of Calgary offered him many cash bags full of foreign coins that had been deposited as fares on their buses. It would have taken months or more of full-time work to list all of those coins on the police database. He bought the coins, saying that they could not possibly be listed on the database as the value of each coin on average was less then a nickel as a wholesale price. In all the years that that database has been going, a single stolen coin-related object was identified: an Elvis medallion. I would have just told them that their stupid laws made it impossible for them to regain any of their lost bus fare income.

Tomorrow, the classic example of elite art-buyer secrecy, a world few of us understand.

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