Last week a US federal judge ordered that the 3,200 year old mummy mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer will remain with the St. Louis Art Museum.
Prosecutors had argued that the funeral mask went missing from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo more than forty years ago and that it should be returned to its country of origin.
The US Attorney General appealed a decision made in April 2012, but the federal court of appeals upheld the original judgement, saying that the US government had failed to prove the mask was stolen.
The St Louis Art Museum (SLAM) maintains that it researched the source of the mask and legitimately purchased it for $500,000 in 1998 from a New York art dealer.
Mohamed Zakaria Goneim
The story goes back to the early 1950s when Mohamed Zakaria Goneim discovered the burial of a nineteenth dynasty noblewoman named Ka-Nefer-Nefer, who lived from 1295 BC to 1186 BC, inside the third dynasty enclosure of Sekhemkhet at Saqqara.
The mask when it was discovered
In 1959, Ka-Nefer-Nefer’s funerary mask, along with a number of other objects from Goneim’s excavations, was transported from the Saqqara storerooms to the Egyptian Museum en route to Tokyo for inclusion in an exhibition that was never mounted.
It was returned to Saqqara, and then sent to the antiquities department conservation laboratory attached to the Egyptian Museum in 1966.
The mask before restoration
In 1973, many of the objects from the burial of Ka-Nefer-Nefer were registered at the Egyptian Museum but the mask was not among these objects and, as it was the most important object in the assemblage, it is thought that it was missing by that time.
In 1998, SLAM purchased the mask from Phoenix Ancient Art, owned by the Abouttam brothers, who have since been convicted on smuggling charges and sentenced to jail time in Egypt.
The Egyptian government believe that the provenance provided to SLAM with the mask is poorly documented and unconvincing, and when coupled with the Supreme Council of Antiquities’ (SCA) records, it can be shown clearly to be false.
SLAM claims that the mask was given to Goneim by the Egyptian government following his discovery of it in 1952, and that the mask was seen overseas in 1953.
This is not possible, argues SCA, as Goneim, like any excavator working for the Egyptian government, would never have been awarded objects, and the SCA has clear documentation that the mask was in Egypt until at least 1966.
The 20-inch long funeral mask of painted and gilded plaster coated linen over wood with inlaid glass eyes
Other parts of the alleged provenance can also be shown to be faulty, and it is the contention of the SCA that SLAM did not carry out due diligence before purchasing the mask. The mask is clearly stolen property, and SCA insist that it should be returned to Egypt.
The US government suggested the mask was stolen sometime between 1966, when it was shipped off to Cairo for an exhibit, and 1973, when the Egyptian Museum in Cairo ran an inventory and found Box number 54, in which the mask had been packed, was empty.
SLAM officials have argued that they researched the mask’s ownership before buying it and there was no indication of any questions about how it arrived in the US.
The attorney acting for SLAM said that they are very happy that the ruling means that the mask can remain permanently in St. Louis and while the legal process provided an opportunity for someone to prove that the mask had been stolen, no-one did.
Dick Ellis, a retired police officer from Scotland Yard in London, criticised the US government lawyers contesting the case for their amateurish approach and wondered whether there is a reason the US authorities did not attempt to accuse a US-based dealer of selling what they alleged was stolen property, but instead went after the museum for buying it.
The Ministry of Antiquities has issued a statement that they will resort to the private sector in the US to put pressure on SLAM in accordance with signed agreements. The statement stressed that Egypt will not give up the legal battle to secure the return of the mummy mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer back home to Egypt.
For more information about SCA’s work on recovering stolen treasures go to www.sca-egypt.org
Photos: St Louis Art Museum