Mummy Mask of the Lady Ka-nefer-nefer, Egyptian, Dynasty 19 (1295-1186 BC), St. Louis Art Museum
The St. Louis Art Museum filed a complaint on Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri at St. Louis, in which it asks the court to declare that there is no proof that the museum’s Ka-nefer-nefer mummy mask—long sought by Egypt’s antiquities chief, Zahi Hawass—was stolen and that even if it was, the statute of limitations for Egypt to claim it has run. David Gill of the Looting Matters blog published a report on this yesterday.
What likely fired up St. Louis’ lawyers was a Jan. 13 meeting at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in St. Louis, at which assistant U.S. attorneys warned the museum of “their intention to seize and forfeit” the mask, in the words of the museum’s complaint.
In its court filing, the museum states:
The Museum conducted a thorough investigation of the Mask’s provenance before purchasing the Mask. The Museum’s investigation revealed no evidence that the Mask was owned by Egypt under applicable Egyptian law at the time of excavation, that the Mask was stolen from Egypt, or that the Mask had unlawfully entered the United States.
Egyptian Law No. 215 on the Protection of Antiquities, the law applicable at the time the Mask was discovered and excavated, allowed for personal and private ownership of Egyptian antiquities, provided that antiquities could be sold or gifted and, as such, did not establish ownership of the Mask by Egypt.
The document provides many more details, from the museum’s point of view, about the history and provenance of the mask and its efforts to verify this information. Some of those details are also part of the information provided about the piece on the museum’s website. Egypt, according to this 2008 news report, states that the mask was registered in the ledger of the warehouse at the Saqqara archaeological site and was likely stolen in 1959 “from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo or en
route to it from the Saqqara storeroom.”
Gill today published a follow-up post stating that “it will be interesting to see if the AAMD [Association of Art Museum Directors] speaks out in support of SLAM
or if there will be moves to encourage the museum back into negotiations
with Egypt’s archaeological authorities.”
Given the recent security breaches at the Egyptian Museum and some archaeological sites, this is probably not the best moment for repatriation. That might possibly have influenced the timing of the complaint, but Egypt’s current circumstances are not the issue before the court.
It appears that Brent Benjamin, director of the St. Louis Art Museum, who in 2008 was named to the State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee (which handles requests from source countries for U.S. restrictions on the import of cultural property) is no longer on that 11-member committee (scroll down for names).