UK govt wants local to buy R126m Egyptian sculpture for future generations to 'enjoy and study'

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An Egyptian artefact at the British Museum, London, England, United Kingdom.
An Egyptian artefact at the British Museum, London, England, United Kingdom.
Prisma/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
  • The UK government has called for a local buyer to snap up a rare Egyptian artefact.
  • The R126 million sculpture has been banned temporarily from export.
  • It was once the part of the personal collection of King George III.

In a bid to keep it in the country, the UK is desperately looking for a local buyer to snap up an "incredibly rare" Egyptian sculpture valued at about R126 million (£6 014 500).

The sculpture, believed to be from the period 2400 BC to 2300 BC, during the Old Kingdom of Egypt, once formed part of the personal collection of King George III, shows priest Mehernefer of the vulture goddess Nekhbet, seated next to his standing son. The son was the priest of the snake goddess Wadjet and also a representative of the monarch in Nubia, a territory south of Egypt that was partially colonised, according to the hieroglyphic inscription on the artefact.

According to the UK government's Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the statue was restored from badly broken fragments.

A third figure representing the father's wife was previously cut away from the statue.

Arts and Heritage Minister Stephen Parkinson said the artefact should remain in the country for generations of British citizens to study.

He 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.

As such, there is now an export deferral in place, which temporarily stops an important, UK-based cultural object from leaving the country when it is sold to a foreign buyer. This is done by delaying applications for an export licence so that a UK buyer will have time to buy it in its place. 

Offers typically come from public institutions, such as museums, galleries and historical organisations.

The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest advised Parkinson to consider this avenue.

"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," the UK government said in a statement.

Christopher Baker of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, called the artefact "an ancient work of rare beauty and refinement with an extraordinary history".

He argued that the artefact had "a very special place" in Egyptology and British collecting stories. It was taken to England in the 18th century by Sir James Porter, Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and presented to King George III.

He later gave it to his friend, Thomas Worsley. Since then, it has been part of his family collection through generations.

Also pushing for the artefact not to leave the UK, Peter Barber - another member of the Reviewing Committee - said, as an Egyptian artefact, it was of particular interest in Britain's cultural history.

He said:

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.

Until 18 May 2023, the statue falls under the export deferral because it meets the Waverley criteria, a UK policy that ties down things that are "closely connected with our history and national life".

The News24 Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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