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Egyptian sculpture left in export limbo

The Egyptian statue of Sekhemka that was controversially deaccessioned by Northampton Museum last year is in an unprecedented legal limbo. The statue, which sold at Christie’s London for £15.8m, is arguably the finest piece of non-royal sculpture from Old Kingdom Egypt anywhere in the world.

The anonymous buyer, possibly a member of Qatar’s royal family, wants to take the 75cm-high sculpture out of the UK. The initial export licence deferral has expired but permission to take the work abroad had not been granted as we went to press. Meanwhile, the Egyptian government is campaigning for its return.

The UK government is facing a delicate situation. The new owner is presumably putting pressure on the authorities to issue an export licence now that the first deferral period has ended, apparently without a UK buyer coming forward. There appears to be no legal impediment to the issuing of a licence to enable the buyer to take the sculpture out of the country.

An export licence was initially deferred until 29 July to allow a UK buyer to match the price paid by the new owner. For the first time since the export regulations were introduced in 1952, this initial deferral period was later extended for a further month, until 28 August. A spokeswoman for the UK’s culture department says that this extension was because of the work’s “special significance”.

The buyer’s identity remains a mystery. An unconfirmed report in the web newsletter PipeLine suggests that the Qatari royal family may have made the purchase.

Dating from 2400-2300BC, the statue of the scribe Sekhemka came from a tomb at Saqqara. On 25 August, Egypt’s ministry of antiquities took the unusual step of placing advertisements in UK national newspapers calling for an export ban to protect “such a historic and cultural gem”. In a separate move, Mamdouh al-Damati, minister for antiquities, called on wealthy Egyptians to put up the money to repatriate the statue. However, this proposal is based on a misunderstanding of the regulations, which require a matching-price buyer to keep the work in the UK.

One option is for the UK culture secretary to announce that there is a prospective matching-offer buyer and to place Sekhemka under a second deferral period, this time for six months, to enable the funds to be raised—perhaps from a very wealthy individual, as a fundraising campaign by a museum is unlikely.