Tuesday 2 August 2011

The Status of Egyptian Antiquities "Floating Around the USA"?

It would seem that the St Louis Art Museum has engaged the wrong cultural property lawyers in their fight to keep the Ka Nefer Nefer mask from Saqqara which they bought from the Aboutaam brothers' Pheonix Ancient Art for half a million dollars. ACCG Executive Director Wayne Sayles would obviously be doing his local art museum a favour putting them in touch with the Guild's own cultural property law expert:
Egyptian Archaeological Objects Like Cocaine? As hard as it might be to believe, the US Government has apparently claimed so in a court filing relating to the pending forfeiture action against the SLAM Mummy Mask.[...] Hopefully, the Government is basing its contention on more than the fact that Egypt has had at some point (1983 was the date adopted by the Court in the Schultz case) a patrimony law that vests unequivocal state ownership of Egyptian artifacts found in the ground of that country and that the artifact is indeed "Egyptian." But, if not, what exactly is the status of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other Egyptian antiquities, significant or not, floating around the United States, according to the USDOJ?[...] Have senior US Government officials cleared such arguments to be made? And, if so, do they truly understand the implications of such claims?
Well, isn't that a thought-provoking topic for the collector who has bought no-questions-asked antiquities to ponder? How can a US collector who cannot prove legal title to an object claimed by another party establish legal title? Only by a documentation of the fact that the other party had actually relinquished title to the object.

Before too many collectors start shooting themselves in the head in anticipation of prison sentences, perhaps it should be recalled that this case does not hinge just on the state ownership of excavated artefacts due to Egypt's patrimony laws (what the ACCG's lawyer calls "the wildest claims of Egyptian cultural property nationalists like the now disgraced former Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass"). The object falls under the terms of the 1970 UNESCO Convention (to which, like it or not, the US is a state party) because it was allegedly stolen from museum storage, and Egypt has asked for it back. I really do not see why a US museum would not react to such a situation in any way other than to surrender the object.

The ACCG's lawyer says "there is no US law on the books that bans the possession of Egyptian artifacts as is the case with cocaine", what about stolen Egyptian artefacts? So basically all SLAM has to do is to prove that the items was not stolen from museum storage and that any movements since its excavation were in accordance with international laws and agreements in force.


David Gill said...

The SLAM mummy mask is unusual because we know the circumstances of its excavation, and we know that it was placed in a store.
What SLAM (or its vendor) needs to produce is the authenticated documentation demonstrating the clear collecting history (so-called "provenance") of the mask since its removal from the archaeological store in Egypt. Is that too much to ask?
Best wishes

Paul Barford said...

Well, of course we both know that SLAM has in fact presented what it originally recieved from the vendor.

I raised the point the other day (not for the first time as I recall) that if part of that collecting history is that it was in CROATIA, then the legality of that collection and the legality of it leaving Croatia need to be established. It would be nice to see the DOJ and other interested parties involving the Croatians in investigating the reported collecting history of this item, since so much of the reconstructed post-excavation history seems to have been spent in Croatian hands.

Also, why was no documentation of import into the USA in the 1990s produced?

Cultural Property Observer said...

I do agree with you that there also is a contention that the Mask in question was stolen from storage, but the former SAFE "cultural property legal expert" who I quoted has suggested that the government's statement was much broader. Under the circumstances, perhaps you should instead be directing your snide remarks at him.

Paul Barford said...

"has suggested that the government's statement was much broader ".

I expect he checked his facts before he wrote that. Not every legal-eagle cultural property blogger does of course.

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