Auction house drops 'unethical' sale of human remains amid protests

An auction house has withdrawn three human bones for sale next month following calls for their “unethical” sale to be stopped.

Taylor’s Auctions in Montrose was due to sell a human skull, thigh bone and hip bone on May 5, with each lot expected to fetch between £20 and £40.

The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland said the sale was unethical and appealed to the auction house to remove the items from the catalogue.

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Jonathan Taylor, salesroom manager at the auction house, confirmed the sale would be withdrawn.

He said: “We are withdrawing the relevant lots. It is legal to sell these items and they get sold in sale rooms all across the UK. We are acting as agents between the vendor and the buyer.

"It was legal to sell these items, but ethically what is right for one person is not ethically right for another.”

Dr Simon Gilmour, director of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, welcomed the decision.

Dr Gilmour said: “We very much welcome the auction house’s decision to remove these items for sale, and hope that they will join with us in helping persuade other auction houses in Scotland to do the same.”

The human remains are due to be sold at Taylor's Auctions in Montrose on May 5. PIC: CC.The human remains are due to be sold at Taylor's Auctions in Montrose on May 5. PIC: CC.
The human remains are due to be sold at Taylor's Auctions in Montrose on May 5. PIC: CC.

He said the auction house had initially “staunchly refused” to stop the sale after he contacted them.

He said: “The first thing to make absolutely clear is that it is not illegal to do this in Scotland.

"Buying and selling human remains in Scotland is quite legal, depending on their age.”

"It is not illegal – but we do think it is unethical.”

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The Human Tissue Act and the common law of sepulchre, which relates to the disturbance of graves, can stop such sales but it is likely the bones fall outwith these two pieces of law.

He said the society supported the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology, which advocates that all human remains should be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of antiquity or provenance.

Dr Gilmour added: "We don’t think it is right to buy and sell these items. You wouldn't buy and sell people when they were alive, so why does that change on death?

"We don’t know what the wishes of this person, or persons, were.

"We can only assume they donated their body to medical science to be used as educational tools.

"I would doubt very much if they would have said ‘you can then sell me afterwards’.

"We would like auction houses across Scotland to stop buying and selling human remains. No one is making a lot of money out of this.

"However, we are talking about somebody’s son or daughter and I doubt very much, if you were able to ask family members, they would agree to the remains being sold.

"As I say, it is not illegal to sell them but for us the ethical issue is very much cut and dry.”

Dr Gilmour said the society would support a law to stop such sales in Scotland.

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