ST. LOUIS • The St. Louis Art Museum filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday asking a judge to order that the U.S. government has no claim on a 3,200-year-old mummy mask that officials in Egypt say was stolen from their country two decades ago.
The Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask, with its inlaid glass eyes and shimmering plaster face, has been on display here since the museum purchased it in 1998 from a New York art dealer for $499,000.
It has been a source of controversy since at least 2006, when a top Egyptian antiquities official demanded its return, saying it had been stolen in the early 1990s from a storage room near the step pyramid of Saqarra, where it was unearthed in 1952.
According to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, the government is now trying to seize the mask for return to Egypt.
The suit asks for a judge to order the government to stop, contending that there is no proof the mask was stolen and that the statute of limitations has expired for any seizure under the Tariff Act of 1930.
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, the suit says.
The U.S. government is named as a defendant, along with U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan, Attorney General Eric Holder and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, whose agency oversees customs enforcement.
David Linenbroker, the museum's attorney, said authorities made it clear at a meeting hosted by the U.S. attorney's office Jan. 13 that the museum must hand over the mask or face seizure.
Linenbroker said several assistant U.S. attorneys were there, as well as homeland security officials. He said federal prosecutors from New York also phoned in, presumably because that is where the mask first entered the country.
"The museum talked about it internally and with its board," Linenbroker said. "We think it's our responsibility and our right to defend our rightful ownership of the mask."
Callahan would not confirm whether his office has begun forfeiture proceedings in court, or plans to do so. He also did not confirm the Jan. 13 meeting.
"It promises to be an interesting lawsuit, but I think any further response would best be left to a legal pleading," Callahan wrote in an e-mail response to questions.
Ka-Nefer-Nefer was an ancient noblewoman at the court of Ramses II. Her mummified body was discovered in 1952 by Egyptian archaeologist Mohammed Zakaria Goneim, and the mask was among the antiquities uncovered.
The museum has insisted over the years that it researched the artifact's ownership history before acquiring it from Phoenix Ancient Art, in New York. The museum reached out to Interpol and the Art Loss Register, among other entities, it contends, and was given no indication of questions about how the mask arrived in the U.S.
The museum's research showed the mask was part of the Kaloterna private collection during the 1960s when it was purchased in Switzerland by a Croatian collector, Zuzi Jelinek. Jelinek sold the mask to the New York art dealer in 1995, according to the museum, which noted that gaps in ownership history are not unusual for rare, ancient objects.
The lawsuit says many of the allegations surrounding the mask began with Tom Cremers, the operator of the Museum Security Network, in Amsterdam, who sent multiple e-mails to government officials in 2005 and 2006 calling for an investigation. Cremers could not be reached Tuesday for comment.