‘Profiting from selling African body parts’: Auction house slammed over sale of Black human remains

According to listings, the remains were originally unearthed in the southwestern region of Egypt in north Africa in 1881 by Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, who’s often referred to as the “father of British archaeology”.  (Screenshot)
According to listings, the remains were originally unearthed in the southwestern region of Egypt in north Africa in 1881 by Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, who’s often referred to as the “father of British archaeology”. (Screenshot)

A UK auction house has been criticised for selling African human remains to the highest bidder.

Semley Auctioneers, based in Dorset, is advertising Ancient Egyptian people’s skulls for an estimate of up to £300 for sale in a move that’s been slammed as unethical and “sickening” by academics, writers and campaigners.

According to listings, the 20 remains were originally unearthed from tombs in El Wadi, the southwestern region of Egypt in north Africa, in 1881 by Lieutenant-General Augustus Pitt-Rivers, who is often referred to as the “father of British archaeology”.

Dan Hicks, Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at the University of Oxford, described the sale as a “grim reminder that it’s still possible for people (and auction houses) to profit from selling the body parts of African people in the UK today”.

Posting on X/Twitter, he said it was “remarkable” that in 2024 the auction house “would offer these skulls for sale to the highest bidder in this manner — profiting through their commission on the sale of human remains.”

According to Prof Hicks, these remains form part of a collection that was sold off around the world by “the Blackshirt grandson of Augustus Pitt-Rivers” referring to the eugenicist George Pitt-Rivers, a supporter of Oswald Mosley, in the 1960s

The remains belong to an ancient Egyptian man and woman, who lived between 1550 - 1292 BC or earlier, the listing said.

A spokesperson for the Pitt Rivers museum said: “We have been advised of this forthcoming sale of ancestral remains but it has nothing to do with the Pitt Rivers Museum.

“These skulls were part of General Pitt-Rivers’ private second collection, which was sold and dispersed in the 1960s. They have never been part of the Pitt Rivers Museum collections.”

The identity of the current owner is unclear.

A third-party listings website, The Saleroom, has also come under fire for promoting the auction listing, given that the company’s own policy prohibits the sale of human remains.

However, following enquiries from The Independent, The Saleroom removed the listings from its website.

A company spokesperson said: “These items are legal for sale in the UK and are of archaeological and anthropological interest. However, after discussion with the auctioneer we have removed the items from The Saleroom while we consider our position and wording of our policy.”

Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy, who’s a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Afrikan Reparations, described the sale of the remains as “sickening” and a “perpetuation of a dark legacy of colonialism”.

Speaking to The Independent, the politician called for the remains to be returned to Egypt and said: "It is sickening that in 2024 the sale of African human is still an issue.

“This despicable trade perpetuates a dark legacy of exploitation, colonialism, and dehumanisation.

“It is a gross violation of human dignity and an affront to the memory of those whose lives were unjustly taken, or whose final resting places were desecrated.

“We cannot allow profit to be made from the exploits of those who often hoped to find evidence for their racist ideology. It is imperative that we take decisive action to end such practices and ensure that the remains of those who were stolen from their homelands are respectfully repatriated."

The Pitt Rivers Museum and Oxford University Museum of Natural History are returning the remains of Aboriginal ancestors to their homeland in Australia which fuels questions as to why the Ancient Egyptian remains are being sold and not repatriated.

In October, when this return was initiated, the Pitt Rivers Museum said: “For the Pitt Rivers Museum, ceremonies like these introduce new chapters in our history as a museum. (...) We are grateful to join this Indigenous-led process that works towards healing.”

The sale of human remains is permitted in the UK under the Human Remains Tissue Act despite calls for this to be reviewed.

In 2022, Taylor’s Auction Rooms in Scotland was forced to stop selling human skull and thigh bones following widespread backlash.

Dr Simon Gilmour, Director of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, said human remains are sold “across the UK and across the world human remains are being trafficked like this”.

Following backlash, Semley Auctioneers also removed the skulls from sale, a spokesperson told The Independent.