Academics have accused Bonhams of encouraging an illegal market for ancient Egyptian artefacts ahead of a major auction in London.
The Treasure of Harageh, a collection of 4,000-year-old artefacts discovered in a tomb in 1914, is expected to fetch between £80,000 and £120,000 when it goes on sale tomorrow (OCT 2).
Although the auction is entirely legal, prominent archaeologists have condemned it, saying it is unethical to inspire thieves with financial incentives to traffic stolen archeology to private auctions, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring.
The collection which goes on sale tomorrow is currently the property of the St. Louis Society, an independent non-profit organisation associated with the Archaeological Institute of America.
Dr Chris Naunton, 36, of the London-based Egypt Exploration Society said: “We are becoming increasingly aware of objects coming onto the market which left Egypt illegally.
“While there is a market and while antiquities of any kind 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.”
Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, policemen in Egypt have abandoned their posts at archaeological sites, leading to systematic looting. Reportedly, 5,700 articles went missing from excavation sites in the three years leading up to 2012 alone.
Other experts have criticised the sale on the grounds that it is simply unethical for publicly-owned collections to be put up for sale to private collectors.
Dr Alice Stevenson, 34, 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.
The spokesperson said: “The AIA has learned with the deepest concern that the AIA St. Louis Society proposes to auction certain antiquities in its possession.
“The national office of the AIA was not consulted prior to this decision and only became aware of the pending auction when an AIA member reported that the antiquities were being offered on an auction house website.
“We are urgently investigating this matter and are working to find a solution that conforms to our firmly expressed ethical position concerning the curation of ancient artifacts for the public good.”
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 underlined the importance of The Treasure of Harageh to the study of archeology.
She said: “These aren’t just aesthetic things to look at – these are things which allow archaeologists to make inferences about the past.”
“If they disappear into private hands, they’re just gone. We won’t have those connections anymore.”
The treasure will be auctioned tomorrow morning at 10.30am as lot 160 at the Bonhams saleroom, New Bond Street, Mayfair.
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