Monday 1 August 2011

St Louis Art Museum Mummy Mask: "Like Cocaine"

Rick St. Hilaire has a piece on his blog: 'US Claims SLAM Lacks Legal Standing— Asserts That Mummy Mask is Illegal Contraband — Discovery Reveals More Information'.
Lawyers for the US Attorney’s Office in St. Louis [...] in their July 27 pleading, contend that SLAM’s “claim of ownership is legally impossible, and as such the Mask is effectively contraband in the hands of the Museum.” The government argues that Egypt’s patrimony law, which gives ownership rights of cultural property to the Egyptians, makes it impossible for the SLAM to own the mummy mask. Therefore, SLAM has no legal standing to assert that it can own the mask. The government’s brief analogizes SLAM’s claim of ownership to the mask is similar to asserting ownership to cocaine — one cannot legally claim ownership. Since the mask cannot be owned by the museum, the museum lacks standing to claim ownership, the government argues.
This is indeed an interesting argument and applies equally to dugup antiquities smuggled to the United States from a number of so-called "source countries". They cannot be legally owned in the USA if they are still the (stolen) property of another entity, a foreign state.

In justification of its case, SLAM supplied Federal authorities with details of the purchase and what due diligence they think they have exercised, including revealing that they "conducted a provenance investigation" by contacting, among others "the Missouri Highway Patrol". Having established that Ka Nefer Nefer was not being sought by them (presumably with regard offences such as hit-and-run, speeding, DUI or driving licence violations in Missouri) or anyone else they asked, they decided to buy it. Although "Swiss legal counsel confirmed [indicated former owner] Jelinek’s address", it's a pity that they did not ask about the Aboutaams' landlady about her "collection". As St Hilaire notes:
Missing from the documents list is a purchase or sales agreement between Jenilek and Pheonix Ancient Art. SLAM claimed in past court filings that such a transaction would have occurred in 1995. SLAM, nevertheless, includes on the list of documents a 1997 fax from Phoenix that purportedly attaches a letter of provenance from Jenilek.

Also missing from the documents list are shipping papers or import papers describing the mask’s entry into the United States. Import papers generally describe a package’s date of entry, location of entry, country of origin, value, and contents. The court papers suggest that the mummy mask traveled from Switzerland to the United States in 1998, but this information remains unclear. The mask must have been imported into the United States at some time and at a specific point of entry. But the question of whether papers exist documenting the importation of the Egyptian mummy mask, valued at several thousands of dollars, remains unanswered thus far.
The question raised about this by St Hilaire is of interest because as will be recalled a few years later (2003) Hitcham Aboutaam was in trouble with federal authorities over the import of an odd-shaped rhyton, supposedly from the Western Cave Treasure in Iran, and in the same year his brother Ali was suspected (apparently accused and maybe even convicted, though details are wholly unclear) of being part of a group of people smuggling artefacts out of Egypt about the same time. With what kind of paperwork did the Ka Nefer Nefer mask enter the US and why has it not been supplied as evidence that SLAM ensured that proper procedure was followed in making this purchase?

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