US museum auctions ancient Egyptian artifacts despite international outcry
Example of an Ushabti statue recovered in South Africa

The Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) in the US state of Ohio pushed ahead with the controversial auction of ancient Egyptian artifacts, despite national and international criticism. The museum has justified the decision to sell 68 historic pieces, nearly half of which are Egyptian. The rest originate from ancient Greece, Cyprus, and Italy.

The auction, which ran from October 19 to 26 via Christie’s Auction House in New York, featured Ushabti statuettes (funerary figurines), jars, bowls, palettes and rings. The antiquities are from various locations across Egypt, with some dating back to the pre-dynastic period, as early as 5,500 years ago.

Egyptian antiquities authorities have openly objected to the auctioning of ancient artifacts. According to a statement issued by the Ministry of Antiquities on October 20, officials from the ministry alongside those from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Egyptian embassy in America took “all the legitimate, legal and diplomatic measures necessary to stop the sale of Egyptian artifacts, and the ministry has addressed the general directors of UNESCO and the International Council of Museums.”

Despite criticism from Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and Italy the TMA posted an open letter on its website on Monday defending its decision to continue with the deaccession of the antiquities, claiming that the proceeds will be put towards “the acquisition of other artworks.” It asserted that it is a non-profit and privately endowed museum, as opposed to a state-funded institution, which abides by international and professional museum standards.

According to the auction house’s page, the opening bids for some objects ranged from US$1,000 to $7,000. It is not clear whether all the pieces were sold and the names and locations of their new owners are not specified. TMA’s director, Brian Kennedy, told the Associated Press that the museum expected the sale to generate approximately $500,000, which would be used to purchase other acquisitions.

The open letter was issued in response to a critical article published in the Toledo Blade news portal entitled “Art Expert slams Toledo museum on sale of antiquities,” which quotes award-winning archaeologist and Professor Joan Connelly as saying that she felt sick to her stomach when she learned of the sale.

Connelly told the paper “it’s just, for me, puzzling and distressing to see this shortsighted decision.” She added “I’m just astounded any museum would sell off items with good provenance, which can be held forever.”

Modern international cultural heritage laws make it impossible to acquire such antiquities today, making it unlikely that the TMA will ever be able to replace the artifacts, Connelly continued, stating “I think they’re all a great loss to Toledo.”

Kennedy confirmed that the museum acquired most of the 68 pieces directly from their countries of origin during the 1910s and 1920s, prior to the implementation of global legislation prohibiting the smuggling of ancient artifacts.

Connelly and several other experts affirmed that the deaccession may be practical for museums which sell off modern art, but not for such priceless and ancient artifacts.


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