Toledo Museum of Art Sells Antiquities at Auction, Sparking Outcry from Cyprus and Egypt

Aimee Dawson reports in the Art Newspaper that the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio has been criticized by officials in Egypt and Cyprus for selling some of its antiquities at auction in order to raise funds for purchasing new works. The museum consigned sixty-eight objects, including ancient Greek and Egyptian artifacts, at Christie’s in New York last month, reaching a total hammer price of around $800,000. The Cypriot ambassador to the US, Leonidas Pantelides, noted in a request that given the recent phenomenon of “unspeakable destruction and illicit looting of cultural heritage,” the objects should remain at the museum.

In a letter to the museum’s director, Brian Kennedy, Pantelides asked that the sale be postponed and offered support from the Cypriot embassy in organizing annual events around the objects and a possible fundraiser at the museum. He noted: “It is my deepest concern that the pieces up for auction may disappear into private collections and never surface again.” For its part, the Egyptian ministry of antiquities demanded that the objects of Egyptian origin be returned to their country. The ministry released a statement on Facebook stating that it had banned all cooperation with the Toledo institution and its staff, while accusing the museum of “violating the International Council of Museum’s (ICOM) code of conduct.” Shaaban Abdel Gawad, the general supervisor of the Egyptian antiquities repatriation department, says that the process to recover the pieces through diplomatic means continues.

The items were sold across two auctions on October 25 and 26. Included in the sale were a Cypriot limestone head of a male votary dated to around 500–450 BCE, which more than doubled its high estimate with a hammer price of $68,750, and an Egyptian painted limestone relief fragment dated to 664–610 BCE, which sold for $162,500, more than four times its high estimate. Only two objects went unsold. According to a spokesperson at Christie’s, two of the lots were bought by American institutions.

In response to the criticism over this matter, the museum published an open letter on its website stating: “Quality has always been the outstanding attribute of our collection, and the objects being sold are not of the quality of our permanent display collection; have been on display rarely; have not been sought out by scholars; or have not been published in recent decades. In short, these objects were not working to fulfill our mission.” A museum spokeswoman claims the institution was in correspondence with the Cypriot Embassy to the US and Abdel Gawad before the sale. A spokeswoman at Christie’s has also noted: “Both Christie’s and the Toledo Museum of Art were in agreement that there were no legal reasons to prevent the sale.”