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Ancient Egyptian sculpture at risk of leaving UK

An export bar has been placed on the statue to allow time for a UK institution to acquire the work

  • Limestone sculpture from circa 2400 BC to 2300 BC depicts the priest Mehernefer of the vulture goddess Nekhbet seated next to his standing son

An ancient Egyptian statue once owned by King George III is at risk of leaving the country unless a UK buyer can be found.

The limestone statue of the pair of priests is thought to have been created circa 2400 to 2300 BC, during Egypt’s Old Kingdom period. It was one of the first antiquities from the country to be brought to the UK after it was acquired by Sir James Porter while he was ambassador to Constantinople in 1746–62.

After being brought to the UK the sculpture, which is worth £6,014,500, formed part of King George III’s collection.

One of only a handful of figures from Egypt’s Old Kingdom in the UK, the statue depicts the priest Mehernefer of the vulture goddess Nekhbet seated next to his standing son, who bore the same name and was the priest of the snake goddess Wadjet. The hieroglyphic inscription also says he was an agent of the king in Nubia, a partly colonised region to the south of Egypt.

The son, who is naked, has his hair in a youth lock hanging to one side and his hand is placed on his father’s shoulder. Their poses and depiction, particularly the prominence of the son standing nearly as tall as his father, are highly unusual in statues of this kind. The statue has been restored from badly broken fragments. A third figure, representing the father’s wife, was previously cut away from the statue.

Arts and Heritage Minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay said:

“This incredibly rare sculpture offers a fascinating glimpse into life in ancient Egypt. I hope a UK buyer can be found so that this artefact can remain in the country to be enjoyed and studied here by future generations.”

The Minister’s decision follows the advice of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest. The committee agreed that the sculpture is of extremely high quality and completeness with a distinguished history in British collections. It also sheds light on the collecting approach of King George III during his reign.

Committee member Christopher Baker said:

“An ancient work of rare beauty and refinement with an extraordinary history, this riveting sculpture has a very special place in the stories of both Egyptology and British collecting. Dating from c.2,400-2,300 BC, during the period known as the Old Kingdom, it is remarkably well preserved and conveys across the millennia with great dignity and tenderness a father-son relationship.

“Arriving in Britain in the mid-18th century, and as such being among the earliest works of ancient Egyptian art to come to this country, it has passed through very distinguished collections: it was acquired by Sir James Porter, Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and presented to King George III. He subsequently gave it to his friend, the architect Thomas Worsley, in whose family’s collection in Yorkshire it has remained ever since. Pre-eminent in terms of its history, aesthetic quality and the rich scholarship it could inspire, every effort should be made to secure this precious sculpture for a British collection.”

Committee member Peter Barber said:

“This handsome sculpture is of a type that is rarely to be met with in ancient Egyptian art and – through its link with Nubia – has much to tell us about ancient Egyptian political history.

“But its provenance makes it of particular importance to the cultural history of Britain. It is one of the first ancient Egyptian sculptures to have been appreciated in England but it also illustrates the marked change in the cultural and artistic tastes of George III, one of our most culturally sophisticated monarchs, in the mid-1760s. Under the influence of Lord Bute he had concentrated since the early 1750s on classical European art from the Greeks and – as here – even earlier civilisations. After Bute’s fall, however, he re-focused, as befitted a ‘Patriot King’, on British antiquity and works connected to its growing empire. His gift of the sculpture  to Thomas Worsley before 1778 testifies to this change.

“It would be a great pity if a work so closely linked to the development of British and royal  taste since the mid-eighteenth century left the United Kingdom.”

The committee made its recommendation on the grounds that the statue met all three of the Waverley criteria: being closely connected with our history and national life, of outstanding aesthetic importance, and of outstanding significance for the study of the archaeological and social history of Old Kingdom Egypt and human civilisation as well as British and Royal collecting of such material.

The decision on the export licence application for the statue will be deferred for a period ending on 18 May 2023 inclusive. At the end of the first deferral period owners will have a consideration period of 15 Business Days to consider any offer(s) to purchase the statue at the recommended price of £6,014,500 (plus VAT of £202,900 which can be reclaimed by an eligible institution). The second deferral period will commence following the signing of an Option Agreement and will last for six months.

Offers from public bodies for less than the recommended price through the private treaty sale arrangements, where appropriate, may also be considered by the Minister. Such purchases frequently offer substantial financial benefit to a public institution wishing to acquire the item.

Notes to editors:

  1. Last month Lord Parkinson discussed the Waverley criteria in a speech to mark their 70th anniversary, and used the opportunity to invite thoughts on the way they work – for instance, whether the Committee should say more about how it has  considered items’ connection to the history of other countries as well as to the UK’s, or whether the items it considers are destined for public display rather than private collection. His full speech can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/lord-parkinson-speech-at-a-reception-to-mark-70-years-of-the-waverley-criteria
  2. Organisations or individuals interested in purchasing the sculpture should contact the RCEWA on 0845 300 6200.
  3. Details of the sculpture are as follows: Height 64.5cm.
  4. Provenance: Most probably originally from a tomb in Saqqara, because the statue is stylistically datable to the late 5th Dynasty, when kings had their pyramids built in Saqqara, surrounded by the tombs of courtiers. Sir James Porter (1710–1786), Ambassador to the Sublime Porte of the Ottoman Empire in 1746–1762, Constantinople, by whom the statue was presented to the following. George III, King of England (1738–1820), by whom the statue was given to the following. Thomas Worsley (1711–1778), Hovingham Hall. Thence by descent to the current owner.
  5. The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest is an independent body, serviced by Arts Council England (ACE), which advises the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on whether a cultural object, intended for export, is of national importance under specified criteria.
  6. Arts Council England is the national development agency for creativity and culture. Its strategic vision in Let’s Create is that, by 2030, England should be a country in which the creativity of everyone is valued and given the chance to flourish and where everyone has access to a remarkable range of high-quality cultural experiences. ACE invests public money from the government and the National Lottery to support the sector and deliver the vision. Following the Covid-19 crisis, ACE developed a £160 million Emergency Response Package, with nearly 90 per cent coming from the National Lottery, for organisations and individuals needing support. It is also one of the bodies administering the government’s unprecedented £1.96 billion Culture Recovery Fund.
Channel website: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/department-for-culture-media-sport

Original article link: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/ancient-egyptian-sculpture-at-risk-of-leaving-uk

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