27 April 2022

Auction house to remove human skull from sale after outcry from history experts

27 April 2022

The decision by an auction house to withdraw a human skull and thigh bone from sale after an outcry from history experts has been welcomed.

The ex-medical items are listed in the Militaria, Domestic & Rural Bygones sale at Taylor’s Auction Rooms in Montrose, Angus on May 5.

But after the sale was blasted by history experts, with Dr Simon Gilmour, director of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, describing it as “unethical”, the auction house said it would remove them from sale.

Jonathan Taylor, salesroom manager, said: “Although legal to sell, and being sold by auctions throughout the UK, the relevant lots have been withdrawn from the auction.”

It seems that once it reaches a certain age then suddenly its fair game to everybody and that's a worry to us and we're not sure why that would be the case

Dr Gilmour said he was “very grateful” to the auction house for agreeing to stop the sale, and added: “We’re hoping that perhaps they can join with us in ensuring that it doesn’t happen again in Scotland.”

The skull and thigh bone were listed together with a composite model of a human hip bone, which the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland also objected to. The model was valued at between £20 and £40.

It is legal to sell these items under the Human Remains Tissue Act, which allows the sale of historic items across the UK, but the sale of newer material is banned.

“There is already an ethical principal in place there because it suggests that recent stuff, ethically, can’t be bought and sold,” said Dr Gilmour.

“But it seems that once it reaches a certain age then suddenly its fair game to everybody and that’s a worry to us and we’re not sure why that would be the case.”

Dr Gilmour added: “We would love auctioneers across Scotland to voluntarily refuse to accept human remains to be bought and sold though their auction houses and we very much like to work with anyone who’s interested to see if we can close this loophole in the law.”

Human remains are not just sold in Scotland, he said, but “it happens across the UK and across the world human remains are being trafficked like this”.

“It’s not unusual but in Scotland, certainly, we’ve only had a few cases in the last two or three years,” he said.

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