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Repose for the Mummy: St. Louis Art Museum Wins Ka-Nefer-Nefer Court Case

Mummy Mask of the Lady Ka-nefer-nefer, Egyptian, Dynasty 19 (1295-1186 BC), St. Louis Art Museum

U.S. District Court Judge Henry Autry has just dealt the U.S. Government a serious blow [via] in its increasingly aggressive legal posture on behalf of foreign governments in cultural-property disputes. And the St. Louis Art Museum gets to keep one of its most prized possessions.

In his nine-page opinion, Judge Autry threw out the government’s lawsuit that had sought the removal to Egypt of the museum’s luminous Mummy Mask of Ka-nefer-nefer, which it had bought from Phoenix Ancient Art in 1998

Egypt had long fought for the mummy’s return, but SLAM director Brent Benjamin, although vilified by Egypt’s former antiquities chief, Zahi Hawass, and criticized by members of the archaeological community, stood his ground, insisting that Egypt had not proven its claim of ownership.

On Jan. 13 the U.S. Attorney’s Office in St. Louis warned the museum of its intention “to seize
and forfeit” the mask, impelling the SLAM to file a complaint seeking dismissal of the government’s lawsuit.

In its complaint, the museum asserted:

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.

The judge bought SLAM’s argument, declaring this in his opinion:

The Government’s legal conclusion…that “[b]ecause the Mask was stolen, it could not have been lawfully exported from Egypt or lawfully imported into the United States” misses a number of factual and logical steps, namely: (1) an assertion that the Mask was actually stolen; (2) factual circumstances relating to when the Government believes the Mask was stolen and why; (3) facts relating to the location from which the Mask was stolen; (4) facts regarding who the Government believes stole the Mask; and (5) a statement or identification of the law which the Government believes applies under which the Mask would be considered stolen and/or illegally exported…

The Government’s…complaint fails to assert specific facts supporting an inference that the Mask is subject to forfeiture.

SLAM is on a roll, having recently announced that it raised $147 million for its David Chipperfield-designed expansion, expected to open in 2013. Diane Toroian Keaggy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that “museum officials call their capital campaign the most
successful in the history of St. Louis’ cultural institutions.”

Meanwhile, Benjamin’s antagonist, Hawass, now has serious new troubles of his own.

an ArtsJournal blog