The Curse of Sekhemka

The Sekhemka statue was gifted to Northampton in 1880.There were two conditions: it had to be looked after; and it had to be displayed. When it came off display for four years these terms were considered broken and it went to auction. This was controversial.

There’s an excellent film on YouTube called “The Curse of Sekhemka” by local Northampton film-maker Kevin Stoney. It documents vociferous opposition, and follows an eleventh-hour trip to Christie’s still hoping to stop the sale. In it, speaking without notes, writer Alan Moore makes a brilliantly impassioned speech on the steps of the Guildhall. “This thing is four and a half thousand years old!” He declares at one point.

Despite this on 10th July 2014 a buyer paid £15.76 Million including commission, a new world record price for an Ancient Egyptian artwork.

Leaving aside the legalities of provenance, the ethics of selling assets gifted in perpetuity; the loss of accreditation from the museum association; the stopping of grant aid from arts and funding bodies; the moral claim of ownership coming from Egypt; and a still-active group here that would very much like the statue back… And that is really quite a lot to ignore… What we are left with is the question: is there a real Curse? And if there is, what can we do about it?

The Museums Association would ask: How can you gift or bequeath an art object or sum of money to a public body, museum or library, after this, without the fear that your wishes will be over-ridden at a later date? This legacy aspect of the curse is simply that givers will stop giving – and in somes cases have already. Worse too, is the idea that other local authorities might copy us.

The Sekhemka statue depicts a family man with his wife and son, who was a scribe and record keeper. He has been of friendly fascination to Northampton school children for the past 150 years. There has never been any sinister aspect to him. Whoever heard of anyone being afraid of a 4500-year-old accountant? A friend of mine told me a joke on this: “What’s he going to do, number us to death?” But that wasn’t his punchline, I’ll get to that in a moment.

The Museums Association have put the original 1880 deed of gift that relates to Northampton and it’s Egyptian collection online. It says four things:

1. It has to be looked after.

2. It has to be displayed.

3. It cannot be sold.

4. The collection returns to the heirs or assignees of the giver at Northampton’s expense if this is not adhered to.

You would think that would be watertight. The only wriggle room is that the statue doesn’t seem to be specifically named, therefore you could argue that it’s not included; but if that is the case, then what proof of ownership is there? (The counter argument is that it was too valuable for us to display, it wasn’t the centre piece of our exhibition or heritage (We are a shoe town), a consultation was carried out, not many people signed a petition to save it, or indeed asked to see it, and extensive legal advice was sought before a sale was finally agreed on).

This level of logical complexity is worthy of the Oxford University entrance exam, or even one of those tricky questions they ask Google hires that even the Google boss can’t answer: Given the above, work out a logical and legal way to get your hands on the money?

Here’s my friend’s pay-off: “ But what the geeks can’t have known is that batting for the other side was the accountancy god of Egypt. Watch out! Even so much as a paperclip wrongly allocated and he’s going to find it.”

During a 2013 pre-sale council debate, our local paper reported the following was said: “I’ve read there is a curse attached to Sekhemka, and if it should fall on anyone, it should fall on this administration”. This is believed to be misquoting something that had been in the same paper a year earlier: “There is no curse on Sekhemka”.

However it did come about, technically the terms for a curse had been met and they seem to include all of us. There was the Castle Ashby fire of course, on the very eve of the statue’s sale that made the first ‘curse’ headlines. Hardest of all to ignore is our missing 10.2 million football loan scandal, not yet linked to the curse. But think about it: no one, not even the cleverest of drill-down auditors has been able to find the money, explain its flight, or offer any prospect of its coming back. Sekhemka the numbers man?

So if there was a reasonably simple way to, as it were, reverse this curse, to placate some if not all of the cultural concerns, and grab back at least a part of our heritage, wouldn’t it be worth considering? I can’t promise to get the loan money or the statue back, but I do have a plan for the rest of it. Just remember, the Guardian called us Phiistines.

So what is my marvelous plan? It’s simple, my suggestion is a high-quality copy of the statue to be put back on display at Northampton Museum, (It would cost about ten thousand pounds), just as our original was for 150 years, along with a facsimile of the original deed of gift. A brief explanation of the hubris we displayed and the disastrous consequences this led to might also be appropriate. This would both appease Sekhemka and have global resonance too. The museum would become a draw to visitors on all kinds of levels. This is a story about folly, it’s not going to have a happy ending. But we can do our best to put it right.