Monday, August 04, 2014

Feds Stop Efforts Against St. Louis to Repatriate Egyptian Mask

NOTE: The newsletter produced by the has become an important voice in the debate over cultural ptrimony. Their approach is thoughtful, reasoned, and even. It is a must read for anyone interested in this subject.

1. ST. LOUIS, MO - A lengthy and convoluted case involving an ancient Egyptian mask purchased by the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM) that began in 2011 was finally resolved on June 12, 2014. In response to the U.S. federal government’s appeal of the district court’s dismissal — twice — of the government’s case against the museum last year, the Eighth Circuit’s Ka Nefer Nefer Appellate
Decision held on procedural grounds that the district court had not abused its discretion in dismissing the case, leaving any discussion of what it described as “an attempt to expand the government’s forfeiture powers at the likely expense of museums and good faith purchasers in the international marketplace for ancient artifacts” for another day.

In 2011, museum representatives were told by federal authorities that they intended to seize a mask SLAM had purchased in 1998. The museum requested a declaratory judgment that the mask could not be seized because the statute of limitations had run and the government could not produce evidence that it was stolen or smuggled into the U.S. The art dealer offering the mask described the mask as having been excavated at Saqqara in 1952 and provided letters showing a chain of European ownership by various individuals. The museum sent photographs and description to the director of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in 1998 and eventually received a letter in which the director declined to identify the mask as stolen; it checked the stolen art databases of the Art Loss Register, INTERPOL, and the International Foundation for Art Research, and hired an independent scholar who reported that the mask had likely left Egypt prior to imposition of Egyptian law prohibiting export. The museum then purchased the mask for almost $500,000 and placed it on display.

The U.S. government investigation provided a somewhat different story of the mask’s ownership history. After its excavation in 1952, the mask was stored for 5 years in Saqqara, then shipped to Cairo, ostensibly in preparation for a traveling exhibit. It was sent back to Saqqara from Cairo in 1962, then boxed and sent again to Cairo in 1966. In 1973, the box contents were inventoried and the mask was missing. In 2006, according to a U.S. government pleading, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities became aware in 2006 that the mask had been acquired by the Saint Louis Art Museum. The U.S. government filed an in rem forfeiture claim in March 2011 asserting that there was probable cause to believe that at some time between 1966 and 1973, the mask had been stolen from Egypt and later introduced unlawfully into the U.S.

The museum moved to dismiss on the basis that the government’s evidence was insufficient to make a claim, and in April 2012, the district court agreed, dismissing the complaint in March 2012 for failure to state a claim. The district court said, essentially, that if the government claims the mask was stolen, it should show some proof of the theft. The U.S. Attorney filed a motion for reconsideration and asked to file an amended complaint, both of which the court denied in June 2012. The U.S. Attorney immediately appealed. Negotiations between federal authorities and the museum, that eventually failed, took place between 2012 and April 2013 and oral argument in the government’s appeal was heard in December 2013 before the Eighth Circuit.

Image: The St. Louis Art Museum, Mummy Mask of the Lady Ka-nefer-nefer

The St. Louis Art Museum’s online catalog entry is below:

Mummy Mask of the Lady Ka-nefer-nefer
New Kingdom
 (1550–1070 BC)
Dynasty 19
 (1295–1186 BC)
plaster, linen, resin, glass, wood, gold, and pigment
21 1/16 x 14 9/16 x 9 3/4 in. (53.5 x 37 x 24.7 cm)
Friends Fund and funds given by Mr. and Mrs. Christian B. Peper, Mrs. Drew Philpott, the Longmire Fund of the Saint Louis Community Foundation, The Arthur and Helen Baer Charitable Foundation, an anonymous donor, Gary Wolff, Mrs. Marjorie M. Getty, by exchange, Florence Heiman in memory of her husband, Theodore Heiman, Ellen D. Thompson, by exchange, Dr. and Mrs. G. R. Hansen, Sid Goldstein in memory of Donna and Earl Jacobs, Friends Fund, by exchange, and Museum Purchase
Accession Number: 19:1998
On View, Gallery 130
Place of origin:  Memphis, Saqqara,  Egypt

This mask has an extraordinary presence with its combination of glass inlaid eyes, gilt face with shimmering, almost lifelike translucence, and realistic wig. The craftsman who fashioned the wig out of thick resin carefully cut and modeled the plaits of hair in the latest style. The red “gold” coloring of her skin-a result of oxidation on the metal surface-may be purposeful or merely the product of the sulphurous fumes given off by the resinous wig. The band around her head, her eyes, and her nipples are inlaid with glass, surprising because glass was as costly and rare as the turquoise and carnelian for which it was substituted. The roughened surface of the mask’s lips suggests they were once covered with a heavier gold foil. In each hand she holds a wooden amulet to signify strength and welfare. A delicate scene carved in relief on her arms shows her successful ascent into the afterlife on the boat of the Great God Osiris.
 1951/1952 -
 Mohammed Zakaria Goneim, excavated at Saqqara, Egypt [1]by 1952 -
 Unknown Dealer, Brussels, Belgium [2]- early 1960s
 Kaloterna Collection [3]early 1960s -
 Private Collection, Switzerland, acquired from Kaloterna collection [4]by 1997 – 1998
 Phoenix Art, S.A. (Hicham Aboutaam), Geneva, Switzerland, purchased from private collection [5]1998/03/30 -
 Saint Louis Art Museum, purchased from Phoenix Ancient Art, S.A. [6]Notes:
 [1] Excavated by Mohammed Zakaria Goneim, Keeper of the Antiquities of Saqqara, at Saqqara, during his first season (1951-1952) at the site [Goneim, Mohammed Zakaria,"Excavations at Saqqara; Horus Sekhem-Khet, the Unfinished Step Pyramid at Saqqara." Vol. 1. Cairo: Imprimerie de L'Institut Français D'Archéologie Orientale, 1957].A letter from a scholar, dated December 12, 1999, indicates that the other objects from the Saqqara excavation group were displayed together in the Cairo Museum, suggesting that they were put on display right after Goneim’s excavation. The scholar suggests that the mask was never displayed with the other excavated objects and was probably awarded to the excavator himself. This would correspond with its appearance on the European art market soon after its excavation [SLAM document files].

[2] In a letter dated February 11, 1997, Charly Mathez confirms that he saw the mask in a gallery in Brussels in 1952. According to a letter dated October 5, 1999, he did not remember the name of the gallery [SLAM document files].

[3] In a letter dated March 19, 1998, Hicham Aboutaam indicated that an anonymous Swiss collector acquired the mask from the Kaloterna (possibly Kaliterna) family. In a letter of July 2, 1997, addressed to Hicham Aboutaam, the Swiss collector stated that this acquisition took place in the early 1960s [SLAM document files]. The name “Kaloterna” may be a misspelling of the common Croatian name “Kaliterna.” The Swiss collector also had an address in Croatia, and it is possible that the collector became acquainted with the Kaloterna (or Kaliterna) family there.

[4] See note [3]. The Swiss collector requested anonymity.

[5] The Swiss collector’s letter of July 2, 1997 confirms the sale of the mask to Aboutaam [SLAM document files]. Aboutaam also states that the mask was in the United States from 1995 until 1997, possibly indicating that it was in the possession of the New York branch of Phoenix Ancient Art, S.A. during that time [letter, September 23, 1997, SLAM document files].

[6] Invoice to the Saint Louis Art Museum dated March 12, 1998 [SLAM document files]. Minutes of the Collections Committee of the Board of Trustees, Saint Louis Art Museum, March 18, 1998.

2. St. Louis: In certain respects, the tale of the Ka-Nefer-Nefer follows a familiar script: like many disputed antiquities, the Egyptian funerary mask was unearthed last century and quickly vanished, spending nearly 50 years in obscurity before resurfacing on the European art market in the late 1990s. The St. Louis Art Museum soon bought the mask -- an elaborately tooled cartonnage of blended gold, glass and linen. It has since become the centerpiece in a bitter ownership dispute between the museum, which claims clear title, and Egypt, which charges the mask was plundered from a government storeroom.
But this story went decidedly off-script last year after U.S. officials, acting on Egypt's behalf, entered the fray. The feds informed museum leaders that they believed the mask was stolen, and they intended to use the courts to seize the artifact and return it to Egypt. But where some museums might have simply handed over the goods, St. Louis went on the attack, filing its own a pre-emptive lawsuit that claimed the statute of
limitations had expired -- an aggressive challenge from an institution that has repeatedly defied calls to release its grip on this pricey piece of loot.
"This is very unusual," Patty Gerstenblith, who directs the Center for Art, Museum & Cultural Heritage Law at DePaul University, told me not long after the museum filed its suit. "This is the first time I've seen a public institution like a museum deciding to expend its funds to proactively sue the government."
Now comes U.S. District Judge Henry E. Autrey, who on March 31 handed museum leaders a legal victory, and a moral challenge, when he dismissed the government's forfeiture claim, finding it "devoid of any facts showing that the Mask was 'missing' because it was stolen and then smuggled out of the country." (Underline and bold in the original).
Indeed, there are no official records showing that the mask was sold by -- or stolen from -- the Egyptian government

No comments: