Editorial: The not-so-clear case of the missing mummy mask

2012-04-10T00:00:00Z Editorial: The not-so-clear case of the missing mummy maskBy the Editorial Board stltoday.com
April 10, 2012 12:00 am  • 

For the time being, and perhaps permanently, the funeral mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer remains the property of the St. Louis Art Museum. It's not entirely clear whether this is a good thing or not.

On Friday, U.S. Attorney Richard G. Callahan asked U.S. District Court Judge Henry E. Autrey to reconsider his March 31 order dismissing the government's claim that the 3,200-year-old "mummy mask" somehow had been improperly obtained by the Art Museum in 1998. The government of Egypt, which lost track of the mask in 1973, wants it back.

The problem, Judge Autrey wrote, is that the law doesn't allow the government to assert "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's decision was a victory for the Art Museum, which has steadfastly insisted that it made exacting efforts to determine the mask's provenance before purchasing it for $499,000 from Phoenix Ancient Art, a New York antiquities dealer.

Say you spend $200 for a 52-inch Sony plasma TV that a guy tells you fell off a truck. Two weeks later, the cops show up at your door asking for a receipt. In Missouri, you can be charged with a Class C felony for receiving stolen property even if you claim you didn't know the TV was stolen.

The art and antiquities world is far more complicated. It is a world full of passionate advocates and venal flim-flammers. Tracing the origin, ownership and authenticity of any given object can be hideously difficult. There are cultural and political ramifications, even philosophical differences.

Does art belong, by right, to the country of origin, even if that country is in chaos? Or does art transcend geography and belong to humanity? Are people being deprived of their cultural heritage, or should art be appreciated by and preserved for the widest possible audience?

For all of these reasons, the mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer has become a minor cause célèbre in the art and antiquities world. After it was discovered in 1952, it was stuffed away in storage for more than 20 years. It appears to have become important only when the St. Louis Art Museum began exhibiting it. Zahi Hawass, a flamboyant self-promoter who was Egypt's minister of antiquities under President Hosni Mubarak, began demanding its return.

Last week the Egyptian newspaper Al-Arham reported that Egypt's new government has charged Mr. Hawass with wasting public money and stealing Egyptian antiquities. As Egypt prepares for elections next month, issues of cultural heritage have been put on the back burner.

Eventually, as the United States builds relations with the new Egypt, U.S. museums may face greater pressure to return Egyptian art. But under international patrimony laws that existed in 1973, when Egypt discovered that the mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer was missing, the Art Museum here seems to have a solid claim of ownership.

"The museum believes it holds these objects in trust," said David Linenbroker, the museum's attorney. "The museum can't just turn it over."

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