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Mummy Mask Morass: Egypt’s Hawass Again Threatens to Haul St. Louis Director into Court

“Mummy Mask of the Lady Ka-nefer-nefer,” Egyptian, Dynasty 19, St. Louis Art Museum

The fight over the St. Louis Art Museum’s “Mummy Mask of the Lady Ka-nefer-nefer”
continues, with the stakes raised higher by the recent appointment of the museum’s director, Brent Benjamin, to the U.S. State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee, which considers (and usually grants) source countries’ requests for heritage protection.

Through the press, Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt’s antiquities authority, has just renewed his previous threat to try to force Benjamin to face charges in Egyptian court. And on its website, the St. Louis museum has posted provenance details about the piece, including references to documents about its recent history. The museum bought the mask from Phoenix Ancient Art in 1998. (To see the provenance details, go here, scroll down to “search ancient objects,” then click the second page, then click the image of the mummy mask.)

Today’s Associated Press publicizes Hawass’ renewed threat and gives a detailed run-down of the arguments on each side of this dispute.

AP reports:

[Mohammed Zakaria] Ghoneim [an Egyptian archaeologist] registered his discovery [of the mask} in the official ledger at the
government warehouse, or magazine, at Saqqara. The page in the ledger
book, a key document Egypt has presented to St. Louis to stake its
claim, shows a high-quality photograph of the mask, the finder’s name
and ID number, and a detailed description.

In 1957, Ghoneim published his discovery in a book showing him and
the mask at the site, which Egyptologists view as important evidence
for Egypt’s claim. A second record from Saqqara given to St. Louis
showed the artifact was packed in a box with other antiquities in 1959
for a shipment to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo….

Because records were not kept or are lost, Egypt has not determined
exactly when the mask was lost. Egyptian research concluded it was
stolen in 1959, most likely from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo or en
route to it from the Saqqara storeroom.

The [St. Louis] museum said it checked with the [Art Loss] registry before buying the mask to see if it was listed as stolen. It was not. St. Louis also sent a
letter to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo saying that it had acquired the
mask and that in its response, the Egyptian museum did not indicate the
item was stolen. Egypt accuses St. Louis of falsifying the provenance,
which documents the history of an artifact’s ownership.

The museum’s provenance puts the mask in the possession of a Belgian
art dealer in 1952. However, Egypt can show that it was in the Saqqara
storeroom in both 1952 and 1959, making it improbable it ever left
there, especially to a foreign country, in the intervening years.

Hawass is pinning his hopes on a new Egyptian law, not yet passed, to aid his campaign to Marion True-ize Brent Benjamin. Has anyone in Cairo or St. Louis heard of negotiation or arbitration? Admittedly, Hawass has made constructive dialogue a lot harder to achieve, with his strident rhetoric and personal attacks on Benjamin: “This stupid man,” he told AP, “he doesn’t understand the rules here.”

an ArtsJournal blog