Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 April 2012
Issue No. 1093
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

See you in St Louis, Ka-Nefer-Nefer

The 3,300-year-old cartonnage mask of the noblewoman Ka-Nefer-Nefer is not likely to return to Egypt unless new evidence emerges, Nevine El-Aref reports

Click to view caption
Ka-Nefer-Nefer's mask on display at SLAM

After a six-year controversy over the ownership of the 19th-Dynasty mummy mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer, a noblewoman from the court of Pharaoh Ramses II, a United States federal judge has ruled that it should stay at the St Louis Art Museum where it has been exhibited since 1998.

The US government had claimed the mask was being held illicitly and should be returned to Egypt.

According to the stltoday website, US District Judge Henry Autry vindicated his ruling that the US government failed to prove that the ancient Egyptian mask had been stolen and smuggled abroad after it went missing from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo about 40 years ago.

The US government "does not provide a factual statement of theft, smuggling or clandestine importation", Autry recorded in the 31 March ruling. "The government cannot simply rest on its laurels and believe that it can initiate a civil forfeiture proceeding on the basis of one bold assertion that because something went missing from one party in 1973 and turned up with another party in 1998, it was therefore stolen and/or imported or exported illegally," the judge wrote.

The government's argument was prefaced on the assumption that the Mask of Ka-Nefer- Nefer was stolen, and was thus forfeitable. Yet the government failed to present compelling evidence that a theft had occurred. Instead, it relied on a lack of any documentation "that the mask was sold or given to a private party during the time frame of 1966 to 1973."

US Attorney Richard Callahan told stltoday that a decision had not been made on whether to appeal.

"We're just looking to make sure we haven't missed the tiniest bit of circumstantial evidence," Callahan said. "We're back to the drawing board and studying it."

The ruling came after almost a year-long lawsuit between St Louis Art Museum (SLAM) and the US government, which wants to seize the mask in order to return it to Egypt on the grounds that it is Egyptian property and has been stolen and illegally smuggled out of the country.

SLAM attorney David Linenbroker said the SLAM did not have any interest in possessing a stolen object. He maintained that the legal process provided an opportunity for anyone to prove that the mask had been stolen, but no one did. Linenbroker said the SLAM was now confident now that it was the rightful owner.

The suit opened in February 2011 when the SLAM filed a federal lawsuit asking the judge to order that the US government had no claim on the mask since there was no proof that it had been stolen and illegally smuggled out of Egypt, and that the statute of limitations for any seizure under the Tariff Act of 1930 had expired.

According to that act, the seizure of any smuggled or stolen property must be within five years of the time of the theft or two years after the theft was discovered.

In return, the US attorney's office filed a series of court motions from mid-March in an attempt to seize the mask. Its official intent was that the government wanted custody of the mask through a civil forfeiture complaint, and it also sought a restraining order to prevent the SLAM from doing anything with the ancient artefact while the issue played out in court.

The Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask is a very beautiful ancient Egyptian artefact depicting the face of a woman of the court of Ramses II. It has inlaid glass eyes and a smiling face covered in gold. The head is adorned with a startling black wig decorated with a gilded lotus flower, and each hand holds a wooden amulet signifying strength and position. A delicate scene carved in relief on the arms shows her successful ascent into the afterlife on the boat of the Great God Osiris.

The Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask has been a source of controversy between the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA) and the SLAM since 2006, when the secretary-general of the then Supreme Council of Antiquities Zahi Hawass claimed it had been stolen and illegally smuggled out of the country and demanded its return to Egypt.

Back in 2006 Hawass had told Al-Ahram Weekly that the mask belonged to Egypt and "by every standard, from the strictly legal to the ethical and moral, it must be returned immediately."

"We are asking for the SLAM's cooperation, and if this is not immediately forthcoming we will contact Interpol and start legal proceedings," Hawass said.

According to records held by the antiquities department, the funerary mask of Ka-Nefer- Nefer was discovered in 1952 by Egyptologist Zakaria Goneim while he was excavating the area of the unfinished Step Pyramid of the Third-Dynasty ruler Sekhemkhet on the Saqqara necropolis. Along with many other finds from the excavation, the mask was placed in the so-called Sekhemkhet magazine situated to the south of the pyramid of Unas. This and all the contents of the magazine were the property of what was then called the Egyptian Antiquities Authority.

Goneim published the discovery in his 1957 book The Buried Pyramid, which also contained illustrations showing him and the mask in situ.

According to the Saqqara inspectorate records, which are well documented, the Ka- Nefer-Nefer mask and other objects discovered during Goneim's excavations were taken to the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square for a special exhibition. A trawl through the museum's documents, however, has produced no evidence that the splendid mask ever entered the Egyptian Museum. Moreover, it was found that several of the other objects discovered by Goneim that had been sent immediately to the museum were stored unregistered until 1972. Goneim himself died in 1959, and from that year there was no mention of the mask in official records until in 2006 when Ton Cremers, the Dutch moderator of the online Museum Security Mailing List, raised a question about the provenance of the funerary mask in St Louis by sending an open letter to the SLAM's director, Brent Benjamin, requesting information as to how the mask had made its way into the museum's collection. He attached a letter from Maarten J Raven, a curator at the Rijksmuseum Van Oudheden in Leiden and joint field director of the Dutch excavations in Saqqara, verifying what was written in the Egyptian documents.

In his e-mail, which was published on the Internet, Raven said that the Saqqara storehouse or magazine, which also served as a repository for numerous finds from the Anglo- Dutch excavations organised by the Egypt Exploration Society in London and the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, had been entered by force and plundered in 1985. "It is unknown to me whether the Egyptian authorities communicated this theft at the time. I myself have seen an object from the mentioned storeroom circulating on the Dutch art market in the early 1990s. I would not be surprised if various institutions and private collectors have purchased objects from this storeroom during this period," Raven wrote in his e- mail.

He continued that after the theft the storehouse had been partly dismantled by the local authorities and all its contents relocated to another storehouse at the edge of the Saqqara valley.

The question raised by Cremers attracted the attention of several archaeologists and people concerned with this and similar issues. Among them was Michel Van Rijin, a self-appointed art-world watchdog, who in turn published Cremers's piece of information on his website and contacted the SLAM. He also sent e-mails to the Egyptian authorities and to international journalists and newspapers, including the Weekly.

Rijin's website alleged that the SLAM had purchased a stolen artefact from the Phoenix Art Gallery run by the Aboutaam brothers, one of whom, Ali Aboutaam, has already been convicted in absentia by the Egyptian courts for art theft and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment as part of the El-Seweissi trial two years ago.

"The half-a-million-dollar cartonnage mask was stolen from the Saqqara storehouse to order and was subsequently sold by the Aboutaams in 1998 to the SLAM, where it remains to this day, a hostage against the prevailing laws on cultural patrimony," Rijin said on his web page. To support his claim, Rijin published Raven's e-mail.

Brent Benjamin dismisses the accusation, and told Hawass in a letter of response, of which the Weekly has obtained a copy, that the SLAM had great respect for Hawass and the SCA and was prepared further to investigate the claim that the mummy mask was stolen. He also pointed out that before buying such a revered object, the museum had carried out extensive research on its provenance and had confirmed that it was not plundered from Egypt.

According to the SLAM's documents and research over its ownership before it arrived in the possession of the museum, the mask was part of the Kaloterna private collection during the 1960s before a Croatian collector, Zusi Jelinek bought it in Switzerland and later sold it to Phoenix Ancient Art of New York in 1995. They in turn sold it to the SLAM in 1998.

Now that a US court has ruled in the SLAM's favour, this is where the case rests.

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