Bonhams auction house based in London have today withdrawn from auction the sale of the ‘Treasure of Harageh‘, the exquisite collection of 4,000-year-old artefacts discovered in Tomb 124 at Fayoum, Egypt in 1914.
The Treasure was expected to fetch between £80,000 and £120,000 when it went on sale today.
Although the auction is legal, prominent archaeologists have condemned it, saying it is unethical to encourage thieves with financial incentives to trade in stolen archaeology to private auctions.
The collection is currently the property of the St. Louis Society, an independent non-profit organisation, associated with the Archaeological Institute of America.
Dr Naunton of the London-based Egypt Exploration Society told Medava, “We are becoming increasingly aware of objects coming onto the market which left Egypt illegally.
“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,” he stressed.
Other experts have criticised the sale on the grounds that it is unethical for publicly-owned collections to be put up for sale to private collectors.
Dr Alice Stevenson of University College London’s Petrie Museum, said that because the treasure was sent to America in 1914, on the condition that it went to a public collection, it is unacceptable that it could be sold to a private collector.
She said: “We need to make people aware of the ethical issues behind these auctions. It is wrong to sell public material which was presented to public collections. To sell them for profit is ethically wrong.”
A spokesman for the Archeological Institute of America said the St. Louis Society is independent of the national organisation. Members of the St. Louis archaeological community are outraged that they were not consulted about the society’s decision.
Bonhams spokesman Julian Roup said: “The client has asked us to act on their behalf and it’s a legal thing that they’re entitled to do. We do not have a problem with that, and in the past years we’ve acted for institutions around the world. In this instance we’ll be doing the same.”
Dr Stevenson stressed the importance of ‘The Treasure of Harageh’ to the study of archaeology.
She said: “These aren’t just things to look at – these are objects which allow archaeologists to learn about the past. If they disappear into private hands, they’re just gone. We won’t have those connections anymore.”
Monica Hanna, an Egyptian archaeologist who has worked to protect and retrieve Egypt’s cultural heritage in recent years told the St. Louis Post Dispatch, “If the St. Louis Society wants to divest themselves of their Egyptian artefacts, I have no doubt that Egypt would gladly offer to take them back.”
The Dispatch asked the leadership of the St Louis Society to explain their reasons for the sale, including how it plans to use the proceeds, but did not receive a response.
The Treasure of Harageh was due to be auctioned as lot 160 at Bonhams saleroom in Mayfair, London. The reasons for the withdrawal of the sale are unknown as yet.