Museum Security Network

Dr. Derek Fincham: Brent Benjamin Appointed to CPAC

More options Oct 13, 4:36 pm

Brent Benjamin Appointed to CPAC
(cross-posted with relevant links at
http://illicit-cultural-property.blogspot.com/2008/10/brent-benjamin-appointed-to-cpac.html)
Dr. Derek Fincham

The White House announced back in September that President Bush will
nominate Brent R. Benjamin to serve on the Cultural Property Advisory
Committee for three years. David Gill commented on the appointment, as
did Wayne Sayles. Earlier in July, Robert O’Brien, a Los Angeles
attorney was nominated as well, though his appointment attracted
little notice.

Ton Cremers, an administrator on the invaluable Museum Security
Network argues this was an “outrageous” appointment. The reason for
the concern is this antiquity, the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask which I
discussed at length last year.

It was stolen from a storehouse in Saqqara sometime between its
excavation in an archaeological dig in 1952, and its acquisition by
the St. Louis Art Museum in 1998. It may be worth examining this
acquisition in more detail. The best summary of the dispute I have
found is this 2006 article in the Riverfront Times.

As always, the antiquities trade presents a number of questions. Was
Benjamin at the museum in 1998 when it acquired this object? No, he
came a year after the mask was acquired. Do his actions with respect
to this mask disqualify him automatically from serving on the
committee? I’m not sure they do. Does this ongoing dispute between
Egypt and the St. Louis Art Museum automatically disqualify Benjamin
from serving on the committee? Not according to President Bush, but
did the Museum really have clean hands when they acquired the mask?
The answer I think is not really.

They purchased it from Hichaam Aboutaam, who has been linked with
looted antiquities. The work had been displayed at a Museum in Geneva
when the SLAM was considering purchasing the work. However, the museum
sent Mohammed Saleh, a retired director of the Cairo Museum a letter
asking:

“[We have] been offered a mummy mask of the 19th dynasty and I was
wondering if you know of any parallels to this object. I have never
seen anything quite like it with a reddish copper-like face probably
owing to the oxidation of the gold surface. It is currently on
exhibition in the Egyptian exhibition at the Museum of Art and History
in Geneva. I would greatly appreciate your thoughts on any parallels
you might know of this piece and hope that I might have the
opportunity to speak with you in several weeks by telephone about this
opportunity.”

Saleh of course was not perhaps the best person in Egypt to contact
about the mask. Shouldn’t someone on the Supreme Council on
Antiquities have been better positioned to handle this request?
Unfortunately this is the shady kind of enquiry which can pass for
thorough provenance research in the antiquities trade. I think its
likely perhaps that the SLAM was not too eager to look to deeply into
the history of this object, for fear they would be unable to acquire
it. The museum was told by the seller that the mask was seen at an
antiquities dealer in 1952, and it remained in the ubiquitous “Swiss
Collection” for the next 40 years. An expert hired by the museum,
Peter Lacovara, reasoned that the mask was probably awarded to the
excavator after the 1952 excavation. This would account for its
appearance at a market in Brussels soon after, though refuting that
fact is nearly impossible at this point.

Egypt has a tenable claim perhaps, but this is a close case. I’m not
aware of the specific steps Egypt has taken in response. They have
seemingly argued that the mask was stolen at some point from an
antiquities storehouse. Now, its their cultural heritage and they’re
free to do with it what they please, but Egypt can be criticized on
two accounts. First, is it really the best idea to have a unique piece
like this mask just sitting in a warehouse for fifty years? Second,
had Egypt documented its collection and its holdings more completely,
they would have had a much stronger legal and ethical claim.

In any event, nobody looks really good in this dispute. Not the
museum, the Phoenix gallery, nor Egypt. But I’m not sure Benjamin, by
merely refusing to return the mask outright to Egypt has disqualified
himself from serving on the CPAC, which it should be mentioned is
comprised of individuals from all the disparate heritage interest
groups, including archaeologists. Also, the CPAC has never refused a
request made by a nation of origin.

Dr. Derek Fincham

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