The St. Louis Museum of Art (SLAM) filed a complaint in federal district court on February 15, 2011 asking for a declaratory judgment to prevent federal authorities from seizing a 19th Dynasty Egyptian mask popularly known as Ka-Nefer-Nefer.
The mask, excavated at Saqqara in 1952 by Mohammed Zakaria Goneim, was sold to SLAM in 1998 by Phoenix Ancient Art in Geneva. According to the New York Times, in 2006 Egypt first claimed that the mask was stolen and asked the museum to return it; and in 2008, U.S. Department of Homeland Security was “looking into the case.” While the museum insists that there is no documentation to prove that Ka-Nefer-Nefer is Egyptian property, stolen, or smuggled, many think otherwise. In a comment to our post, Dr. Peter Lacovara wrote:
The St. Louis Art Museum was informed by me soon after the purchase of that Mask that it came from Goneim’s excavations, was published and where, and that although it was not registered in the Cairo Museums’ inventory, the only means by which it could have legally left Egypt was if it had been retained by Goniem and later legally sold by him or his heirs and they would need to investigate this. They did not.
Another telling fact is that the name of the owner of the mask Ka-nefer-nefer was written in hieratic on the hand of mask and was scratched out and over painted to disguise its identity. If this were a painting published in a European catalog no one would dream of trying to justify keeping it without a clear and legitimate history. The Museum never undertook due diligence in trying to determine the provenance of this piece despite being told there was a cloud over it from the beginning.
They have no justification in retaining this mask and it should be returned to Egypt and the Museum should underwrite the cost of a conservator removing the over paint and restoring the inscription on the hand.
When SAFECORNER asked in an informal poll last March what should happen with the lawsuit, the results were:
- 26% said “SLAM should continue legal action in federal court.”
- 46% said “SLAM should produce documentation proving that the mask was legally exported from Egypt.”
- 45% said “SLAM should acknowledge Egypt’s claim of ownership.”
- 25% said “SLAM should drop the lawsuit.”
The curious case of St Louis Art Museum vs the United States may have just become “curiouser and curiouser” with the U.S. District Court’s dismissal of the government’s effort to forfeit the disputed Ka Nefer Nefer mask, but what about the case of St. Louis Art Museum vs public opinion?
According to Associated Press,
U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan said a decision on whether to appeal has not been made.
“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.”
Meanwhile, the SLAM Attorney Linenbroker is said to be confident “we’re the rightful owner.”
The American Association of Museum (AAM) Code of Ethics for Museums says that a museum must make a “unique contribution to the public by collecting, preserving, and interpreting the things of this world.” How is the public served in the case of Ka-Nefer-Nefer? What do you think?
Add your voice to our latest poll: Should the St. Louis Art Museum return the disputed Ka-Nefer-Nefer funeral mask to Egypt?