Museum Security Network

Cultural Heritage in Danger: The curious case of St Louis Art Museum vs the United States

Cultural Heritage in Danger: The curious case of St Louis Art Museum vs the United States.

In a highly unusual legal maneuver by a U.S. museum seeking to retain recent acquisition, 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. Attorney Ricardo St. Hilaire has posted a helpful summary of SLAM’s complaint and legal arguments, in which he points out important ownership information that is missing from SLAM’s complaint. According to St. Hilaire, “the museum essentially argues that the US government cannot legally take the mask because the statute of limitations has run out and because there is no reason to believe that the mask is Egyptian property or that it was illegally stolen or smuggled into the United States.” Looting Matters alsodiscusses the complaint and questions whether SLAM is adhering to the American Association of Museum Directors‘ Code of Ethics, which says “A museum director should not knowingly acquire or allow to be recommended for acquisition any object that has been stolen, removed in contravention of treaties or international conventions to which the United States is a signatory, or illegally imported in the United States.”

Here are some known facts about the controversy:

• All sides agree that the mask was excavated at Saqqara in 1952 by Mohammed Zakaria Goneim, then chief inspector of antiquities.

• All sides agree that the mask was sold to SLAM in 1998 by Phoenix Ancient Art in Geneva for US$499,000.

• Phoenix Ancient Art and SLAM contend, based on oral testimony, that the mask was given to Egyptologist M. Zakariya Goneim, who excavated the Saqqara necropolis in 1952, as part of the “division of finds” (partage) agreement that permitted archaeologists who do fieldwork to a share of the objects that are found. The mask reportedly appeared in a Brussels gallery in 1952. Then, according to the museum’s provenance, the mask entered the Kaloterna (or Kaliterna) Collection sometime in the “early 1960s” and was then resold to a “Private Collection, Switzerland.” The SLAM provenance ends with a letter dated July 2, 1997 stating that Zuzi Jelinek in Geneva, Switzerland sold the mask to Phoenix Ancient Art in or about 1995. (But Malcolm Gay, a reporter for the St. Louis-based Riverfront Times, dialed the telephone number at the top of the 1997 letter and spoke to a man identifying himself as Jelinek’s son, Ivo Jelinek, who said his mother never owned the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask. ‘This is completely false information. . . .’)

• Zahi Hawass, Egyptian Minister of Antiquities, refutes the claim that the mask was given to Zakariya Goneim. That scenario is impossible, Hawass says, because according to the Egyptian law no “division of finds” was allowed with Egyptians. And Goneim, as an Egyptian excavator who worked with the Egyptian government, could not have offered the mask to anyone. Hawass also denies that the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask appeared in the 1952 Brussels gallery, because that same year, and for the next seven years, the mask was listed in the Saqqara inspectorate’s registered book as a stored item until its transfer to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo for exhibition in 1959. An image showing the mask in the Egyptian Museum acquisition register has been posted on the Stanford Archaeology Center website. According to Egyptian Museum records, the mask never arrived. And no export permit has surfaced showing that the mask was legally removed from the country in accordance with Egyptian cultural patrimony law (Egyptian Law No. 215 on the Protection of Antiquities) that was in force at the time.

• Neither SLAM nor Phoenix Ancient Art has produced any documentation that the Egyptian government gave the mask to M. Zakariya Goneim, and they do not mention that Goneim’s own writings indicate that he did not own the mask. In the acknowledgements section of his 1956 book The Buried Pyramid, Goneim thanks the Egyptian Department of Antiquities in Cairo “for permission to reproduce” two photographs of the mask. SLAM and Phoenix Ancient Art also fail to mention that Goneim was falsely accused of stealing and smuggling antiquities by Egyptian authorities in 1957-58 after his return to Egypt from a lecture tour of the U.S. Subjected to intense police interrogation alleging that Goneim had stolen a large and valuable vessel that had been discovered at Saqqara two years earlier, Goneim proclaimed his innocence. In January 1959 French Egyptologist Jean-Philippe Lauer found the vessel in a corner of the Egyptian Museum’s vast depository and hurried to deliver the good news to authorities, only to discover that Goneim (a broken man) had committed suicide by jumping into the Nile. Of all the people in the world that SLAM and Phoenix would choose (without any proof) to link to the stolen Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask, the last person, it seems, would be M. Zakariya Goneim.

We feel strongly that SLAM has not undertaken a full, rigorous and systematic due diligence procedure to exclude the possibility that the mask was not removed illegally from the Saqqara store. In addition, SLAM has so far been unable to present authenticated documentation to demonstrate that the mask did leave Egypt in the 1950s as has been suggested.

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