Thursday 12 April 2012

SLAM's Collecting History of the Ka Nefer Nefer Mask (IV): The Little House on Quai de Cologny.

Continuing my exploration of the version of the collecting history of the Ka Nefer Nefer cartonage mask now in St Louis Art Museum we now come to the most mysterious of the steps by which it travelled across Europe. In an earlier post I discussed its reported presence for a short while in the "early 1960s" in something called the "Kaloterna Collection". SLAM documentation contains the speculation that "Kaloterna" might be a misspelling of "Kaliterna," a common Croatian surname.

The story is taken up by Malcolm Gay in his excellent summary, 'Out of Egypt' in the Riverfront Times:
The mask was soon resold, according to the provenance, this time to a "Private Collection, Switzerland". The transaction is said to have occurred in the "early 1960s." The provenance contains no documentation of the purchase. Footnotes add that "[t]he Swiss collector requested anonymity," and that "[t]he Swiss collector's letter of July 2, 1997 confirms the sale of the mask to Aboutaam." "The dealer did provide us with a letter to that effect from the individual who owned it that had requested anonymity," says Brent Benjamin. "The museum did verify the identity of that person. We know it's a real person. We know that person exists. We know the address. It's not a fictional person." A copy of the letter obtained by the Riverfront Times identifies the Swiss collector as Zuzi Jelinek
of 84 Quai de Cologny, Geneva Switzerland. The universe of high-dollar collectors is a rarefied one. Nonetheless, when a New York antiquities dealer ran the name "Jelinek" through his 18,000-name database of museums, collectors and dealers at Riverfront Times' request, the search came up negative. According to Swiss telephone listings, a Suzana Jelinek-Ronkuline lives at 84 Quai de Cologny in Geneva. Her telephone number is identical to the one on the letter Phoenix Ancient Art provided to the St. Louis museum.
Reached by phone in Geneva, a man identifying himself as Jelinek's son, Ivo Jelinek, says his mother never owned the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask.
"This is completely false information. We have nothing to do with any mask, certainly not from the Nineteenth Dynasty," asserts Jelinek, who says he lives at the address listed on the letter. "She has never had interest or invested money in such [objects]."
Jelinek says his mother's name may be linked to the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask for another reason: the Aboutaam brothers, owners of Phoenix Ancient Art, rented another house she owns on Quai de Cologny. "They were tenants of Lebanese origin who rented one of our houses. They are merchants of perhaps of this type of objects — maybe this is the connection," says Jelinek. "They lived on [Quai de Cologny] at another number, but they left. They are not there any longer."
Presented with this information, Hicham Aboutaam directed the Riverfront Times to a woman identifying herself as Suzana Jelinek, of Zagreb, Croatia. "I bought the mask many many years ago, and I sold it many many years ago," says Suzana Jelinek when reached at her Zagreb home. "I have so many things in my collection that my children don't know what all I have."
"That's very peculiar," the University of Virginia's Bell says. "That's very suspicious. That's a very unconvincing sort of provenance that would not be acceptable anywhere". 
Well, yes it is curious isn't it? Starting at the beginning, Mrs Jelinek reportedly comes from Zagreb, was the Kaloterna vel Kaliterna Collection in Zagreb? Was this where Ms Jelinek claims to have bought this item "in the early 1960s"? How then did it leave Communist Yugoslavia and end up in Geneva?

So, this story has Mrs Jelinek buying the mask in "the early 1960s" and selling it from  84 Quai de Cologny, Geneva in 1997, some 30+ years later to her tenants, the Aboutaams. We do not know what address the Aboutaams rented (or when) on Quai de Cologny (a nice enough location, not very far from the Geneva free port storage facilities) we do learn that Ms Jelinek has another property on the street at number 72 where she put in for planning permission in 2008, but whether that is her only property there is difficult to say.  

In 2006 the Suzana Jelinek to whom the Riverfront Times journalist talked said something which seems rather strange: "I bought the mask many many years ago, and I sold it many many years ago". She was speaking before February 2006 about a sale that had taken place (according to the letter in SLAM) in July 1997, just eight and a half years previously. Would one use today the term "many many years ago" that happened in the middle of 2003?  When does the Zagreb Jelinek think she sold the mask?

Also puzzling is the reported insistence of Ivo Jelinek that "his mother never owned the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask [...] "This is completely false information. We have nothing to do with any mask, certainly not from the Nineteenth Dynasty," asserts Jelinek, who says he lives at the address listed on the letter. "She has never had interest or invested money in such [objects]".

The  Zagreb Suzana Jelinek explains this away by saying "I have so many things in my collection that my children don't know what all I have". When I first read that, I imagined the Geneva property-owner of Croatian origin inhabiting some vast sprawling pile with vast halls and winding corridors and stairways crammed with antiques. It is perhaps plausible, given enough mummy cases scattered around, that kids might not notice the one with the gilded face standing for thirty years in the passage leading to the servants' quarters (but then son Ivo at the indicated address is adamant that his mother has never invested any money in any such objects). More surprising is what the house from which Suzana Jelinek-Ronkuline sold that item to the Aboutaam brothers looks like. Google Earth it, Google Street View it. It has a nice sloping front garden and a free-standing garage - but is a relatively modest low two storey dwelling nestling on the hillside, somewhat diminutive compared to some of its neighbours (while Number 72 is even smaller). I really cannot imagine anyone walking past the mask (or a 60 cm tall box containing the mask) every day for thirty years not noticing it in such a house. This really casts some doubt on the story that this is where the mask was kept until the Aboutaams bought it from Ms Jelinek in 1997. But then, that seems not to be what happened either, see part VI of this saga.

But for the moment, let us stay with Ms Jelinek and her place in this story. Let us pass to what  Laura Young writes in her study: 'A Framework for resolution of Claims for Cultural Property', 2007) page 51.  At the time of the purchase, it seems that the only document SLAM had in its files as the result of the 'due diligence' it says it carried out before the purchase was a letter from a private Swiss collector, who requested anonymity, provided by the seller. This she reports was dated July 2, 1997 and was addressed   to Hicham Aboutaam of Phoenix Ancient Art, S.A.
This letter verifies that the mask was in a private Swiss collection since the early 1960s until it was sold it to Hicham Aboutamm in 1997. In this letter the Swiss collector writes that,
“this is to certify that I sold you the beautiful Egyptian cartonage mask of a lady…this mask was in my collection since the early 60s…My kind regards and I wish that this Egyptian Lady bring you many luck as she had brought to me” (Saint Louis Art Museum, 1997, p.1).
There were no other documents in the open file to verify this ownership history.
That's rather vague wording. Note nothing defines the time when this transaction took plce, nor that the vague "the beautiful Egyptian cartonage mask of a lady" can in any way be linked with a specific mask now being offered by a dealer who no doubt has had not a few mummy masks pass through his hands. There is no mention of this "certification" being signed in the presence of a notary or any other official. Look at the wording, "this is to confirm that I sold you this", not "to confirm the sale to you of". The writer of the letter intends to establish for the buyer (and presumably at his specific request to do so) a provenance, rather than confirm the transfer of title (eg for tax, export purposes). There is a very significant difference. Note also that neither seller or dealer betray any knowledge of the name of the beautiful (nefer !) lady. Since if the mask could be identified by giving that name, either the inscription was no longer on the mask, or neither collector nor dealer could read it, or naming the individual did not suit the interests behind writing this letter. Which was it?

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