Friday, March 11, 2011

The St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM) Fights for a Mask and May Lose

As we saw in Peter Watson's Medici Conspiracy the buying and selling of antiquities is at the heart of what  often becomes an intriguing international soap opera involving museums, collectors, politicians, cops, grave diggers, shady dealers, and lots of money. When I began following SLAM's efforts to keep their mask, I happen to reading Watson's book and yes Hichaam Aboutaam is featured in both stories. This one is somewhat different in that SLAM did make efforts to clarify the collection history and it appears that the U.S. Government failed to act promptly.  But could this be a precedent setting case where the U.S. The information below provides background and information as of yesterday.

The blog Looting Matters has asked the following questions. "Ali and Hicham Aboutaam have yet to explain their link with an antiquity returned from Princeton to Italy. Aboutaam's urge that other institutions should "follow suit" and repatriate "antiquities whose provenance may be in doubt" will cause discomfort for two particular institutions: The St Louis Art Gallery: the Egyptian mummy mask and The Cleveland Museum of Art: the Cleveland Apollo. Ali and Hicham Aboutaam have yet to explain their link with an antiquity returned from Princeton to Italy. Will these two museums be returning these two acquisitions in the near future? "

3. - St. Louis , Mo. Brent Benjamin Appointed to CPAC
The White House announced back in September that President Bush will nominate Brent R. Benjamin to serve on the Cultural Property Advisory Committee for three years. David Gill commented on the appointment, as did Wayne Sayles. Earlier in July, Robert O'Brien, a Los Angeles attorney was nominated as well, though his appointment attracted little notice.

Ton Cremers, an administrator on the invaluable Museum Security Network argues this was an "outrageous" appointment. The reason for the concern is this antiquity, the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask which I discussed at length last year.

It was stolen from a storehouse in Saqqara sometime between its excavation in an archaeological dig in 1952, and its acquisition by the St. Louis Art Museum in 1998. It may be worth examining this acquisition in more detail. The best summary of the dispute I have found is this 2006 article in the Riverfront Times.

As always, the antiquities trade presents a number of questions. Was Benjamin at the museum in 1998 when it acquired this object? No, he came a year after the mask was acquired. Do his actions with respect to this mask disqualify him automatically from serving on the committee? I'm not sure they do. Does this ongoing dispute between Egypt and the St. Louis Art Museum automatically disqualify Benjamin from serving on the committee? Not according to President Bush, but did the Museum really have clean hands when they acquired the mask? The answer I think is not really.

They purchased it from Hichaam Aboutaam, who has been linked with looted antiquities. The work had been displayed at a Museum in Geneva when the SLAM was considering purchasing the work. However, the museum sent Mohammed Saleh, a retired director of the Cairo Museum a letter asking:.. Read more..

4. Museum Security Network - St. Louis, Mo
SLAM’s Federal Court Action: Summary and Comment on the Saga of the Mummy Mask
The St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM) on February 15, 2011 filed a lawsuit against the United States seeking a declaratory judgment in the case of the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mummy mask. It is helpful to explain both what this lawsuit is about and what missing information and discrepancies are starting to appear at this early stage of the court process. 
Summary of SLAM’s Complaint and Legal Arguments
A declaratory judgment is a binding ruling by a court that decides a party’s rights in a dispute. It is a preventive action taken when a party believes that it will face impending legal action. In this case, SLAM filed a complaint in federal district court to prevent authorities from seizing the mummy mask in its possession. SLAM’s complaint suggests that federal authorities were preparing to seize the controversial mummy mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer, excavated in 1952 in Egypt and purchased by the museum in 1998 from Phoenix Ancient Art, Geneva. The complaint alleges that “counsel for the Museum was contacted by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Missouri in St. Louis, to request a meeting regarding the Mask. On January 13, 2011, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in St. Louis hosted a meeting regarding the Mask. In attendance were Assistant U.S. Attorneys from the St. Louis U.S. Attorney’s Office and, telephonically, the Southern District of New York, and agents from DHS in St. Louis and, also telephonically, a DHS agent stationed in Cairo, Egypt. During this meeting, the Assistant U.S. Attorneys communicated their intention to seize and forfeit the Mask pursuant to 19 U.S.C. 1595a.” The museum responded by filing the current petition for declaratory judgment.
SLAM wants the federal district court in St. Louis to declare that the mummy mask cannot be seized by federal officials.

5. St. Louis - St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM)  Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask Dispute 
Meanwhile, SLAM’s assertion that Jelinek sold the mask to Phoenix Ancient Art will likely be challenged by the federal government. The Riverfront Times described an unusual transaction between Zuzi Jelinek and Phoeniz Ancient Art, or perhaps the lack of a transaction at all. The newspaper explained:
“According to Swiss telephone listings, a Suzana Jelinek-Ronkuline lives at 84 Quai de Cologny in Geneva. Her telephone number is identical to the one on the letter Phoenix Ancient Art provided to the St. Louis museum. Reached by phone in Geneva, a man identifying himself as Jelinek’s son, Ivo Jelinek, says his mother never owned the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask. ‘This is completely false information. . . .’ Jelinek says his mother’s name may be linked to the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask for another reason: the Aboutaam brothers, owners of Phoenix Ancient Art, rented another house she owns on Quai de Cologny. . . . Presented with this information, Hicham Aboutaam directed the Riverfront Timesto a woman identifying herself as Suzana Jelinek, of Zagreb, Croatia. ‘I bought the mask many many years ago, and I sold it many many years ago,’ says Suzana Jelinek when reached at her Zagreb home. ‘I have so many things in my collection that my children don’t know what all I have.’”
Phoenix Ancient Art allegedly bought the mask in 1997 from Jelinek. The purchase price paid by Phoenix was not known, according to the Riverfront Times. But this price hopefully will be reported during the current federal litigation since an object’s fair market value or its undervalue is a piece of evidence used to determine whether property was legally or illegally transferred. It also goes without saying that evidence of a purchase and sale can certainly establish whether Jelinek engaged in a transaction involving the mask. That evidence can take many forms, including evidence of the parties’ bank statements for example, documenting the release of purchase money or the deposit of sale money.
Also of interest is the museum’s reported due diligence. One must always ask “What diligence is due?” The museum’s complaint certainly details a variety of concrete and laudable steps taken to verify the mummy mask’s provenance. However, several questions remain regarding the actual information learned through that diligence and how that information was accepted or rejected when deciding to purchase the mask.
Hopefully we will learn more as the case progresses. (

6. Rome -  Jennifer Dobner, Associated Press -Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask Dispute Ton Cremers, security consultant, and operator of the website news service, Museum Security Network in The Netherlands, is mentioned in the lawsuit that cites numerous emails Mr. Cremers sent to government officials in 2005 and 2006 call for an investigation, according to Mann.
I reached Mr. Cremers in Rome and he, traveling on with an iPad and without his usual computer, referred us to his response today that he posted on the MSN Google Group:
Ton Cremers: There is NO doubt whatsoever that this mask was stolen from a storage is Saqqara. One does not need to be surprised that the infamous Aboutaam brothers were the ones selling this mask. They are ‘renowned’ for trading in dubious antiquities without any provenance. In this case they just made up a fake provenance: supposedly the mask had been part of a Swiss private collection. Yes, Switzerland again….
Anybody who read Peter Watsons’ books, Sotheby’s The Inside Story and The Medici Conspiracy knows that the Swiss route should be distrusted. The Aboutaam fake provenance was very easy to unmask for the Swiss collector mentioned by them in the provenance had never heard about this mask.
According the ICOM deontological code, no museum should keep stolen objects, no matter any legal context. There is a knack in this case: the Saint Louis Art Museum is not a member of ICOM, and apparently does not mind the ICOM ethical code. If they had been an ICOM Member, they should have been thrown out of this organization immediately. It is an outright lie that they performed due diligence when achieving this mask, for they did not.
In my view, Brent Benjamin, the director of the SLAM, is nothing else than an outright buyer of stolen property (yes, I am aware that his predecessor actually bought the mask). His standpoint is that Egypt must prove that the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask was stolen. That is putting the world upside down. One thing is sure beyond any doubt: The mask was not excavated in Missouri.

7. Legal Status of Egyptian Mask Under Dispute Date: Thursday, February 17, 2011
Who owns the ancient Egyptian mummy Mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer? The mask, which belonged to a noble woman who lived over 3,000 years ago, was found in 1952. The museum, which bought it in 1998, is seeking to enjoin seizure by U.S. authorities.
The museum, represented by Jeffrey Simon with Husch Blackwell in Kansas City, says it conducted a thorough investigation of the mask’s provenance before purchasing it. Moreover, they assert, the U.S. cannot show probable cause that the mask was stolen, smuggled, or otherwise clandestinely entered the United States. The museum urges that Egyptian law allowed for the personal and private ownership of Egyptian antiquities when the mask was discovered. And, even if it was stolen, they says the five-year statute of limitations under the Tariff Act of 1930 has run.
For more information visit Courthouse News Service.

8. U.S. demands art museum hand over Egyptian artifact
ST. LOUIS | Wed Mar 16, 2011 8:39pm EDT Reuters - A fight between the U.S. government and the St. Louis Art Museum over a death mask from ancient Egypt intensified on Wednesday as the government formally demanded the museum hand over the disputed object.The 3,200-year-old mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer, a 19th Dynasty noblewoman, sits on display in the basement of the museum. The federal complaint contends the mask was stolen from Egypt before the museum obtained it for $500,000 in 1998. The complaint, which included a request for a restraining order preventing the museum from disposing of the mask during the legal proceedings, came a month after the museum sued the government to try to block the seizure of the mask. U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan said the dispute was "unfortunate" and would be "resolved by the courts." The museum was not available for comment.
In its lawsuit, the museum said that the government did not have enough evidence that the mask was stolen and that the statute of limitations had run out on the government's right to seize the mask.
The federal complaint said the government was "certain" the mask was stolen and had traced its path following its discovery by an Egyptian excavator in 1952. The mask was stolen sometime between 1966 and 1973, the complaint said. In 2006, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities found out the mask had been purchased by the St. Louis museum and began its attempt to recover the piece.
(Reporting by Bruce Olson. Editing by Peter Bohan)

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