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
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.
Ka Nefer Nefer Collecting History (V): Meanwhile…
April 15, 2012
The two variant versions of the collecting history most clearly clash in the period when the SLAM-promoted version has it in the possession of Zuzi Jelinek in Geneva. While the documentation supplied to the museum at the time of purchase by the dealer trying to sell it presents it as being in the Jelinek collection (see the earlier post on this and the house in which it was said to have been held
), other documentation has it somewhere else.When the alarm about the mask’s whereabouts was initially raised, by Michel Van Rijn (whose previous flamboyant stay in St Louis is discussed here
) and Ton Cremers they publicised an email by Marten Raven who drew attention to thefts from the storerooms at Saqqara, and more specifically the Sekhemkhet magazine to the south of the pyramid of Unas there. This is the one where the mummy mask would have been held if it was still in Egypt. The storeroom contained finds from the Anglo-Dutch excavations (organised by the Egypt Exploration Society in London and the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden), was looted after the 1985 season. Dr Raven, witnessed the damage to the warehouse first-hand. After this theft, the storage facility was dismantled and the remaining contents relocated. This was the basis for the initial demands that St Louis Museum presented more information supporting its claim of rightful ownership (open letter to St Louis Art Museum director Brent Benjamin requesting information about how the mask had made its way into the museum collection). This is discussed in the February 2006 article: Kaufman, Jason E. 2006a. “This mask belongs to Egypt
”, Art Newspaper no 167, March, 4
(reply: Kaufman, Jason E. 2006b. “’This mask is ours’ says St Louis Art Museum”, Art Newspaper
no 170, June, 5).
There seems to be some confusion about what should be in those Saqqara magazines. We recall Goneim’s problems were caused by the lack of proper documentation in the 1950s about what was where (he was falsely accused of having let objects be stolen from Saqqara, which later turned up in Cairo
). When the mask’s collecting history began to be discussed more widely, Zahi Hawass was less clear than he was later about what had happened to the mask since its excavation in 1922. He is quoted in the article “This mask belongs in Egypt” as saying:
“The mask of Ka-nefer-nefer was excavated by Dr Goneim in 1952 and then, like most excavation finds, stored in the Saqqara warehouse, as property of the SCA. It was never, to my knowledge, brought to the Cairo Museum [where finds from Saqqara were sometimes stored]. Therefore, it was…stolen from the storeroom and certainly left Egypt illegally.”
Certainly there were later thefts from the storerooms. Two alabaster vessels in the form of trussed ducks (excavated by the German Archaeological Institute at Dahshur in 1979 and stored in Saqqara) were returned to Egypt in 2008, one by Christie’s Auction House, New York, and the other by Rupert Wace Ancient Art Ltd., London (who had earlier acquired it from the Piasa auction house – but see here see herePiasa auction house in Paris). Two additional vessels remain missing. Nevine El-Aref (‘Safe and coming home‘, Al Ahram Weekly, 29 May – 4 June 2008) reports the return in 2008 of another Saqqara artefact, a green 19th-Dynasty ushabti figure of a woman named Hener (removed from sale by auction with the help of Egypt’s ambassador to Holland, and in custody in the Leiden Museum following an Amsterdam court verdict). This had been excavated in Saqqara in 1985 by a team from Leiden University. In the SCA account of this piece we get the fuller history of what was determined after 2006:
It was stolen from the Sekhemkhet Magazine at Saqqara in 1987, along with a number of other pieces. This theft was not discovered until an inventory of the magazine in 1995.
It seems though that the Egyptian authorities ascertained that the Ka Nefer Nefer mask had not been among the objects stolen in 1987. They knew that the batch of objects from Goneim’s excavations in which the mask should be included were in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo at the time of the Saqqara theft. But the mask was not among them (this was used initially by SLAM to support their claim that the object had never been in that collection – because, they suggest, it had been awarded to the excavator in 1952). This is what excavator of Saqqara Maarten Raven said in 2006. By 2008 it was being stated by the Egyptian authorities that the object had gone missing in 1959 (when 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 Cairo Museum en route to Tokyo for inclusion in an exhibition that was never mounted). This is the account given on the March 2009 webpage of the Cultural Heritage Resource of the Stanford Archaeology Center
SLAM demanded documentation of the presence of the mask in the Egyptian collections, and in response the Egyptian authorities sent a copy of such a document. I am not clear when it was sent, but it is referred to in a text of October 2008 (‘St. Louis museum proud of its ancient mask purchase, but Egypt calls it a steal‘, New York Times 24 oct 2008):
Ghoneim registered his discovery in the official ledger at the government warehouse, or magazine, at Saqqara. The page in the ledger book, a key document Egypt has presented to St. Louis to stake its claim, shows a high-quality photograph of the mask, the finder’s name and ID number, and a detailed description.
[Most other accounts of the existence of this ledger date from the end of November 2008]. I understand there is no mention in that register that the object was officially deaccessioned.Obviously SLAM must hold the position that the Saqqara ledger page they were shown is a later fake. They have offered no proof however that would stand in a court of law that this is the case.
The Stanford Archaeology Center webpage shows what the state-of-play was in March 2009:
H[awass] produced documentation to show that it had been registered as the property of the Egyptian government by 1953, and that in 1959 it had been transported from storage in Saqqara to Cairo for display in the Egyptian Museum. Unfortunately, there is no documentation to show that the mask ever arrived in Cairo, and the assumption is that it must have been stolen sometime after 1959. Nevertheless, this would have been seven years after the mask is alleged to have been on the European antiquities market.
Subsequent to 2008 new information turned up (the records of transport movements will be on paper in those pre-computer days and we have seen recently just how many problems the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is having dealing with its records) which showed that the object did not disappear in 1959. This is significant, because of course an object disappearing in 1959 could appear in the Jelinek collection in Geneva (and indeed the Kaloterna collection in Zagreb) in “the early 1960s”.The SCA “missing artefacts” website summarises the newly-emerged facts (this was last updated 26 may 2011, but it is unclear when these new facts were added)
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 Cairo 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 lab attached to the Egyptian Museum in 1966. In 1973, many of the objects from the burial of Ka-nefer-nefer were registered at the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. The mask was not among these objects; since it was the most important object in the assemblage, we can infer that it was missing by that time.
On page 2 of Judge Autrey’s dismissal of the case we read:
To support its legal conclusion that the Mask was stolen, the Government alleges that the Mask was excavated at Saqqara, Eqypt, in 1952, placed in storage in Saqqara following its excavation where it remained until 1959, and then was “packed for shipping” to Cairo, Egypt, in preparation for an exhibit in Tokyo,Japan. The complaint further states that the Mask was “received by police guards” in Cairo in July of 1959, but instead of traveling to Tokyo, it remained in Cairo until 1962 when it was transferred back to Saqqara. The verified complaint further states that the Mask was removed from Saqqara in 1966 and “traveled” to Cairo in “box number fifty-four,” the “last documented location of the Mask in Egypt.” The complaint then goes on to state that in 1973, an inventory was taken of box number fifty-four, whereupon it was discovered the Mask was “missing.”
On the basis of those facts (ie treated as such) he then sees no grounds for accepting the object was stolen. The point is however if we accept that the mask was in a box in Egypt as late as 1966, this cannot be squared with it having been in the Kaloterna and then Jelinek collections in “the early 1960s”. If we accept that fact, the letter Ms Jelinek wrote to Hicham Aboutaam in 1997 no longer has any evidential value. It states things which are not in accord with other facts.So have the Egyptians and US government just made up “box 54”? This is what SLAM would have to assert – but then accusing a fellow museum of falsifying the records, they really ought to have better proof than the fact that they have in their files a single letter by Ms Jelinek (reportedly Aboutaam’s landlady, somebody not known to have collected any antiquities of this class, and stating facts reportedly contradicted by her own son). [They also have the Charly Mathez letter – more on that later]
Mr Aboutaam Buys, and Sells, a Mummy Mask
April 15, 2012
St Louis Art Museum bought a mummy mask from Phoenix Ancient Art (Invoice to the Saint Louis Art Museum dated March 12, 1998
in SLAM document files). They had been supplied by the seller with a collecting history which seemed acceptable to them at the time, placing it in two central European collections in the early 1960s. Further information was supplied a few months after the purchase (the 4th October 1999 correspondence between Sidney Goldstein and Peter Lacovara) which seemed to be evidence that it had been on the European market even earlier, in 1952. The object entered the collection at the end of March 1998
(Accession Number: 19:1998).I have not seen it explicitly stated whose name is on that invoice. This would be worth checking. Phoenix Ancient Art is a family business. It was started in 1968 in Beirut by the Lebanese dealer Sleiman Aboutaam, a wealthy Lebanese businessman who reportedly had amassed a fortune through an exclusive contract to supply general merchandise to oil tankers in the Kuwaiti port of Al Ahmadi (Ron Stodghill, ‘Do You Know Where That Art Has Been?
‘, New York Times March 18, 2007). Phoenix Ancient Art (incorporated since 1995) continues today under the leadership of his sons, Hicham Aboutaam and Ali Aboutaam. The younger son (born 1968) having finished studying art history at the University of Michigan began working in father’s business before 1998. The galleries changed hands when Sleiman Aboutaam and his wife were sadly among the 229 people who died on board Swissair flight 111
(from JFK New York to Geneva) which crashed six months after the Ka Nefer Nefer mask sale on 2nd September 1998 in the Atlantic off Nova Scotia. Hicham then took over running the New York gallery and his older brother Ali began running the Geneva gallery. They obviously inherited all their father’s stock and documentation.
The possibility therefore exists that the person who was responsible for taking the mask of Ka Nefer Nefer to the US and selling it to the St Louis Art Museum was Sleiman Aboutaam (and therefore we might expect his name to be on the invoice – whether or not it is, St Louis Art Museum has declined to tell us, and that turns out to be rather an interesting circumstance). This would however explain why there are some questions about it that Hicham and Ali are not in a position to answer. Anyway, the SLAM collecting history tells us:
by 1997 – 1998 Phoenix Art, S.A. (Hicham Aboutaam), Geneva, Switzerland, purchased from private collection 
and the footnote 5 to which it refers reads:
[…] [Which?] 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].
[Other texts accept that the object was indeed in the US in 1995, for example one of the earliest, StLToday, ‘Art museum sues to keep Egyptian mummy mask‘, but also 38 other accounts generated only in the last ten days]. So it seems from this that the Aboutaams’ purchase and export of the item took place some time before the end of 1995 (remember Zuzi Jelinek’s “many, many years ago”?). It is unclear to whom the Aboutaams offered this object. The letter of September 23rd 1997 [who its author was is not stated] seems to be the first approach of Aboutaam to the SLAM mentioned in the information we have. In subsequent documentation Hicham, not Slieman is noted as having bought the object, and having bought it in Geneva. Footnotes  to  in the SLAM collecting history give us the information from the SLAM document files about the “anonymous Swiss collector” that was stated at the time of purchase to have been the person from whom the Aboutaams had acquired the object:
In a letter of July 2, 1997, addressed to Hicham Aboutaam, the Swiss collector stated that this acquisition took place in the early 1960s . […] The Swiss collector requested anonymity […] The Swiss collector’s letter of July 2, 1997 confirms the sale of the mask to Aboutaam [SLAM document files].
One or other of the Aboutaams apparently had the mask in the USA since 1995, but only in July 1997 did Hicham Aboutaam get an “I sold you…” letter from a person reportedly his former landlady in order to provide provenance (presumably – since no such material seems to have been passed to SLAM – having no other documentation in hand confirming the sale). Why was this letter not written earlier? Or were there other letters previous to this?But look at this:
 In a letter dated March 19, 1998 [so a week AFTER the stated date of issue of the invoice for the purchase!], Hicham Aboutaam indicated that an anonymous Swiss collector acquired the mask from the Kaloterna (possibly Kaliterna) family.
It is odd that this suggests that this information is not offered in the July 2nd letter confirming (nota bene) the provenance of the object. Why did this information (apparently) only appear in writing eight and a half months AFTER Zuzi Jelinek wrote that letter and after, it seems, the SLAM had already decided to buy the object? What purpose did providing that additional information serve in March 1998?While the Charly Mathez letter (intimating that the object was on the market in 1952) is dated “February 11, 1997”, but was only shown to the Museum well after the purchase.
Setting out in chronological order how the information obtainable from the material in the public domain about the collecting history as reconstructed by the Aboutaams emerged is quite an interesting exercise – but one I leave up to the reader to attempt, and then draw their own conclusions.