A legal challenge for the return of the 3,300-year-old mask of ancient Egyptian noblewoman Ka-Nefer-Nefer has failed after US attorneys missed a filing deadline, writes Nevine El-Aref
The controversial mask of a noblewoman, Ka-Nefer-Nefer, who once graced the court of ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II was in the limelight again last week, when the case against the Saint Louis Art Museum in the US to have the mask returned to Egypt fell apart because the attorneys missed a filing deadline.
Presiding Judge James Loken remarked that the US government, which had brought the case, would now have to “beg for a do-over.”
According to the Daily RFT blog, the US Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals declined to grant the government what it wanted. Loken, who wrote the judgement, chastised government lawyers who “knew many months prior to the order of dismissal of the possible need to amend the pleading.”
Accordingly, the court issued its decision that the mask would stay where it was and would not be returned to Egypt.
Judge Diana Murphy concurred with the ruling, but mentioned that the fight over the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask has much greater significance than just a missed deadline. “I concur in the court’s opinion, but write separately to express my concern about what the record in this case reveals about the illicit trade in antiquities,” she said.
She added that “the substantive issues underlying this litigation are of great significance, and not only to museums which responsibly seek to build their collections. The theft of cultural patrimony and its trade on the black market present concerns of international import. These issues affect governments and the international art and antiquities markets, as well as those who seek to safeguard global cultural heritage.”
Former Egyptian minister of antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim told Al-Ahram Weekly that Egypt would not abandon its right to the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask and would take further steps for its return.
He said that pressure could be put on the Saint Louis Art Museum to force it to return the mask.
Last week’s cabinet reshuffle saw the appointment of a new Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Al-Damati. The latter told the Weekly that he could not comment as a result of his recent appointment, but promised to review the case and would never sacrifice Egypt’s right to the return of its stolen artefacts.
The Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask is a beautiful ancient Egyptian artefact depicting the face of a woman at the court of Ramses II. It has inlaid glass eyes and is covered in gold. The head is adorned with a black wig decorated with a gilded lotus flower, and each hand holds a wooden amulet signifying strength and status. A delicate scene carved in relief on the arms shows the woman’s ascent into the afterlife on the boat of the god Osiris.
The Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask has been a source of controversy between the Egyptian government and the Saint Louis Art Museum since 2006, when former 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.
Hawass told the Weekly in 2006 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 museum’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 Ghoneim while he was excavating the area of the unfinished Step Pyramid of the Third-Dynasty ruler Sekhemkhet at 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.
Ghoneim 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, the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask and other objects discovered during Ghoneim’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 mask ever entered the Egyptian Museum. Moreover, it was found that several of the other objects discovered by Ghoneim that had been sent to the museum were stored without being registered until 1972.
Ghoneim himself died in 1959, and there was no mention of the mask in official records until 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 the Saint Louis Museum by sending an open letter to its 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, 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 saw 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 by saying that after the theft the storehouse had been partially closed by the local authorities and its contents relocated to another storehouse at the edge of the Saqqara Valley.
The question raised by Cremers attracted the attention of archaeologists and other people concerned. Among them was Michel Van Rijin, a self-appointed art-world watchdog, who in turn published Cremers’ information on his website and contacted the Saint Louis Museum.
He also sent e-mails to the Egyptian authorities and to international journalists and newspapers, including the Weekly.
Rijin’s Website alleged that the museum 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 Al-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 Saint Louis Museum, 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.
Benjamin dismissed the allegations, telling Hawass in a letter, of which the Weekly has obtained a copy, that the Saint Louis Museum was prepared to investigate the claim that the mummy mask was stolen. He said that before buying the object, the museum had carried out extensive research on its provenance and had confirmed that it was not plundered from Egypt.
According to the museum’s research into 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. This in turn sold it to the Saint Louis Museum in 1998.
In 2011, a law suit was initiated between the museum and the US government which wants to return the mask to Egypt on the grounds that it is Egyptian property and was stolen and illegally smuggled out of the country.
In response, the museum 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 US tariff act of 1930 had expired.
According to the 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 papers from mid-March in an attempt to seize the mask. It wanted custody of the mask through a civil forfeiture complaint, and it also sought a restraining order to prevent the museum from doing anything with the artefact.
In 2012, a United States federal judge ruled in the museum’s favour and decided that the mask should stay in the museum, where it has been exhibited since 1998, as the US government did not provide a statement of the theft, smuggling or clandestine importation of the mask after it went missing from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
The US government appealed, but its attorneys have now missed the filing deadline and the mask is still in the Saint Louis Museum with a gloomy future ahead of it.
Recent timeline of Events (US/Egypt’s timeline; St. Louis Art Museum’s timeline)
1951/1952: Excavated in Saqqara 1952: Unknown dealer, Brussels, Belgium 1953: Registered as Property of Egypt 1957: Ghoneim published the mask with its illustration in his book “The Buried Pyramid” 1962: Transferred back to Saqqara 1966: Last documented in Egypt stored in Box 44 1973: Found missing from Box 44 during inventory in Saqqara 1997/1998: Phoenix Art in New York possessed the Mask 1998: St. Louis Art Museum acquired Mask for 499,000 2006: Egypt claimed it was stolen and provenance came under question 2011: US on behalf of Egypt, filed a complaint against SLAM 2012: US federal court decided to keep the mask in SLAM 2014: US government appealed the court ruling but did not attain the filing deadline