Friday 10 October 2014

Met rescues an Egyptian treasure from auction

New York's Metropolitan Museum has acquired the nearly 4,000 year old Egyptian "Treasure of Haregeh" from Bonhams after it was withdrawn from public auction.

Some pieces of the Haregeh treasure

The Treasure consists of 37 pieces from the Middle Kingdom’s 12th Dynasty (1897-1878 BC) found within the burial tomb of a rich woman of that period. It was excavated between 1913 and 1914 by the British School of Archaeology in Egypt, and was exported from Egypt to London following permission from the Egyptian authorities under the terms of the contemporary excavation license. The Treasure was then passed on to the St Louis Society, as consideration for the latter’s financial contribution towards the excavation. It has been said that the St Louis Society, an independent non-profit organisation associated with the Archeological Institute of America, received the items on the condition that they would always be shown in a public collection.

For a century, the treasure was held at the St Louis Art Museum, until the St Louis Society decided to sell the pieces at auction in London, as the annual storage cost had become too high for the organisation The treasure was included in Bonham’s catalogue for its antiquities auction on October 2 for the estimated price of between £80,000 and £120,000 (US$ 130,000-200,000). It featured prominently on the auction house’s website, but was then withdrawn before the lot came under the hammer.

The withdrawal probably occurred since the St Louis Society's decision to sell the treasure was widely criticised by art experts as a loss of a public cultural resource.

The national office of the Archeological Institute of America, the UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archeology and the Egypt Exploration Society insisted that the sale would have contravened the public display condition in the original agreement.

Moreover, those experts stressed that the legal sale of antiquities could provide incentives for global criminal activity. Dr Naunton of the London-based Egypt Exploration society said "While there is a market and while antiquities fetch very high prices, there is incentive for people on the ground in Egypt to continue to find objects and sell them. In this way, legal sales are driving illegal trade". 

Other experts also criticised the sale on the grounds that it would be unethical for publicly-owned collections to be put up for sale to private collectors. Public museums offer the best hope that antiquities are safeguarded against loss or deterioration, and that they remain accessible to scholars and the wider public for study and enjoyment.

Fortunately, the Met intervened by purchasing the majority of the treasure from Bonhams, except for an alabaster travertine headrest which was sold to a private buyer. In a press release, a spokesman for the St. Louis Society's said : "The Metropolitan Museum in New York is the best home for the treasure. We are looking forward to seeing objects and jewelry on exhibition".

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