Wednesday 16 February 2011

Slam the SLAM for their position on Egyptian Looting

St Louis Art Museum whose Director Brent R. Benjamin was until recently one of George Bush's cultural property 'advisors' has really scored a home goal with the timing of this. As the head of the Egyptian Antiquities Service is otherwise engaged, and as international concern grows about the illegal export of antiquities stolen from Egyptian museum stores, this institution is actually suing the US State Department (seems a popular pastime in US antiquity collecting circles!) to prevent them from seizing the ancient Egyptian mummy Mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer in their collections (Joe Harris, 'Museum Sues USA Over Mummy Mask', Courthouse News 16th Feb 2011). As we know, the Museum bought this item from a well-known antiquity dealer brotherhood in 1998. The Museum says they did:
a "months long" investigation of the mask's origins and found no evidence that it was stolen - it claims that even Egyptian law is on its side. "The museum conducted a thorough investigation of the mask's provenance before purchasing the mask," the complaint states. "The museum's investigation revealed no evidence that the mask was owned by Egypt under applicable Egyptian law at the time of excavation, that the mask was stolen from Egypt, or that the mask had unlawfully entered the United States.
Well, of course the text does not say that the Museum ascertained it had legally left Egypt, which should be the starting point of any investigation. What evidence did they seek? DID they find out about the mask's "origins" before they bought it? My reading of the story indicates that they did not discover that it had been excavated in 1952 at Saqqara and published. A thorough investigation of the "provenance" (ie collecting history) would not leave the glaring gaps and inconsistencies uncovered by a pair of journalists working for the local paper who probably did not have to take "many months" to write their story.

SLAM contests that "Egyptian Law No. 215 on the Protection of Antiquities", does not make the ownership of the mask illegal in Egypt, and therefore not in the US either. They are hoping:
"The United States government cannot show probable cause the mask was 'stolen, smuggled, or clandestinely imported or introduced' into the United States.
But then neither (I bet) can they show that it was not smuggled out of Egypt. Whether or not it was "clandestinely" imported or introduced into the USA is neither here nor there unless you are a cultural property lawyer arguing on behalf of a client.
Even if the mask was stolen, the museum says, the Tariff Act of 1930's 5-year statute of limitations has expired. "As early as December 31, 2005 ... the United States government had actual or constructive knowledge the mask was allegedly stolen. ... As such, the United States government possessed, more than five years ago, either constructive or actual knowledge sufficient to discover the alleged theft of the Mask from Egypt," the complaint states. "Pursuant to 19 U.S.C. § 1621, the United States government is time-barred from proceeding against the Museum under the Tariff Act."
Whether or not US culture-thievery laws are on the side of the museum, what does this say about the people of St Louis, their Museum and its trustees? Will they be acquiring much more dugup stuff from Egypt as it comes onto the international market after doing similarly "thorough" investigations of its origins? Is it for the US government to investigate the doings of the local museum, or is this something the good people (the good ones) of St Louis should be demanding the Museum does for itself? St Louis, the Lootier City? Whatever the museum claims to have "done" in 1998, there are awkward questions about the collecting history of this object, what has St Louis done to break through the fog, instead of waiting passively to see if anyone outside can "discover the alleged theft" and then when the statutory five years are up thumbing their nose at everyone?

Previous coverage here, here, here ("it would be interesting to hear Mr Goldstein's side of the story" - never did), here, (talks about the "won't get this from me until you prize it from my cold dead hands" attitude this court case illustrates - but also draws attention to Laura Elizabeth Young's online 2007 MSc Thesis which "provides a few additional details about what documentation SLAM posessed at the time of purchase and what joined the files after" do have a look at that and see why that is so significant to the case put forward by SLAM) . Also here. But the story has its real beginnings in the February 2006 Riverfront Times article "Out of Egypt: From a long-buried pyramid to the Saint Louis Art Museum: The mysterious voyage of the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask"

UPDATE: Two hours later, I see somebody on a computer I identified earlier as probably in SLAM has spent quite a bit of time looking through this post and the links. Good. Give it back!!

Ton Cremers has written a rather more sharply-worded post on MSN ("THIS MASK WAS STOLEN IN EGYPT AND THE SAINT LOUIS ART MUSEUM KNOWS") which puts it in a nutshell. This is a matter of collecting ethics and not US law. It was Tom Cremers, then the operator of the Museum Security Network, in Amsterdam, who alerted the world to this case, sending according to SLAM "multiple e-mails to government officials in 2005 and 2006 calling for an investigation". The fact that the gubn'mint did not do any such thing is what this legal case celebrates. The US government scandalously has no bilateral cultural property agreement with its big ally in the Middle East, Egypt. This is because under the Mubarak government Article 9 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention the only one that the CCPIA (US sham "implementation" of the Convention) recognises) was not felt applicable.

Other coverage of this truly bizarre news item:
David Gill, St Louis Art Museum and AAMD Guidelines,

Derek Fincham, St. Louis Art Museum Sues the United States to Preclude a Forfeiture

ARCA Blog: St. Louis Art Museum Sues the United States to Preclude a Forfeiture

Catherine Schofield Sezgin on the ARCA blog: Ton Cremers Weighs in on the lawsuit by the St. Louis Art Museum on Keeping the Ka-Nefer-Nefer Mask

UPDATE: And the collectors' view? "The Grand SLAM".

Vignette: Egyptian documentation (you know, the ones SLAM - stalling maybe to wait out their five years - said if the Egyptians produced it they'd give the object back?) from the Stanford summary of the case.

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