Friday, December 20, 2013

United States v. Mask of Ka Nefer Nefer

Over the last few years the United States government (on behalf of the Egyptian government) and the St. Louis Art Museum have been entwined in a legal battle, formally known as United States v. Mask of Ka Nefer Nefer.  The case involves allegations that the museum purchased a stolen artifact and as a result the U.S. government demanded the museum to forfeit the artifact.
The artifact in question is a funerary mask of an Egyptian noble-woman dating back 3200 years.  In 1951-1952 an Egyptologist named Mohammed Zakaria Goneim, excavated the mask at Saqqara, Egypt.

According to the provenance listed on the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM) website, an unknown dealer in Brussels purchased the mask in 1952.  In the early 1960s the Kaloterma Collection housed the mask and then sold it to a private collection in Switzerland.  In 1997/1998 Phoenix Art owned the piece and sold it to SLAM on March 20, 1998 for $499,000 (SLAM 2013).  I want to stress that according to SLAM's website the provenance of the mask between 1952 and 1997 come from letters dated 1997 to 1999, which I find problematic for the following reasons:
  • Letters can be doctored
  • Letters are not always factual and do not support a high burden of evidence
  • These letters were written almost 40 years after the 1952 excavation
In 2006 the object's provenance came under question based on a claim that the mask was stolen out of storage in Saqqara sometime after 1985.  Egyptologist Dr. Zahi Hawass asked for the return, and presented paperwork demonstrating that the mask was registered as property of the Egyptian government in 1953, and was moved from storage in 1959 in preparation for display in Tokyo (the display never occurred).

According to the complaint in the United States v. Mask of Ka Nefer Nefer, police guards in Cairo received the mask in 1959 and it remained in Cairo until 1962 when it was transferred back to Saqqara.  The last documented location was in 1966 when it traveled back to Saqqara in box 44, and when officials took an inventory in 1973, they discovered the mask missing.  The US notes that "[t]he register did not document that the Mask was sold or given to a private party during the time frame of 1966 to 1973".

The US filed for a motion of forfeiture in 2011 based on the National Stolen Property Act (18 USC Section 2314).  The museum claimed the following:
  • The statute of limitations expired
  • The museum conducted due diligence during the acquisition claiming that they contacted Interpol, Art Loss Register, and the Egyptian Museum
Here are my problems with the claim of due diligence along with the provenance presented by both parties.  First, if an object is unknown as stolen/missing, it will not appear on Interpol or Art Loss Register.  Second, the Egyptian Museum does not house every Egyptian artifact, it is similar to contacting the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to inquire about a piece that might be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  The Egyptian Museum is not the end all authority over every Egyptian piece. 

My third issue deals mostly with the conflicting provenance.  SLAM's letters do not correspond to the documentation presented by the US.  How can an object in a private collection be noted on a register in 1966?  How can an object be slated for display in Tokyo in 1959 if it is in a private collection in Belgium or Switzerland? 

In the art market, and other illicit markets, Switzerland is a place where documentation becomes "clean".  Many illicit antiquities once lived in some "private collection in Switzerland", it is considered a red flag.  So my question is, does SLAM really believe that this item was not stolen in some way or has a peculiar history?

This story is among the reasons why many institutions are changing their acquisition policies by putting in writing what documentation is needed in order to acquire a piece, and the burden of documentation has also increased.  I praise institutions such as the MFA in Boston for making changes to their acquisition policy, but I lament that there are other intuitions that do not seem to be doing the "right/ethical thing".

The judge dismissed the US's case stating that the government could not prove theft and that missing does not mean stolen and that it was exported/imported illegally.  Although missing does not necessarily mean stolen, the circumstances are murky, and the US has appealed the case and oral argument are set to begin on January 14, 2014.

 Please share your thought on this case, specifically do you think the museum acted ethically during acquisition.

Recent Timeline of Events (US/Egypt's timeline; St. Louis Art Museum's timeline)

1951/1952: Excavated in Saqqara
1952: Unknown dealer, Brussels, Belgium
1953: Registered as Property of Egypt
1959: Received by police guards in Cairo for transport to Tokyo
Early 1960s: Kaloterma Collection and the a Private Collection in Switzerland
1962: Transferred back to Saqqara
1966: Last documented in Egypt stored in Box 44
1973: Found missing from Box 44 during inventory in Saqqara
1997/1998: Phoenix Art in New York possessed the Mask
1998: St. Louis Art Museum acquired Mask for 499,000
2006: Egypt claimed it was stolen and provenance came under question
2011: US on behalf of Egypt, filed a complaint against SLAM
Gay, Malcolm
2006 Out of Egypt. Riverfront Times., Accessed December 20, 2013.
Saint Louis Art Museum.
United States v. Mask of Ka Nefer Nefer. 4:2011cv00504. 2011 Missouri Eastern District Court.
18 USC Section 2314.
Note:  All images taken from:
Gay, Malcolm
2006 Out of Egypt. Riverfront Times., Accessed December 20, 2013.