Tuesday 10 April 2012

Ka Nefer Nefer and the SLAM-Promoted Collecting History (II) The Mysterious Mr Mathez

St. Louis Art Museum attorney David Linenbroker said the museum does not "have any interest in possessing a stolen object" and "We're confident we're the rightful owner". He adds: "We've been facing all this innuendo for years".

Well, it has gone a little beyond "innuendo".

The article 'Out of Egypt' (Wednesday, Feb 15 2006) details what journalist  Malcolm Gay determined six years ago had been claimed by the dealer and the St Louis Art Museum as the artefact's collecting history after it was excavated in 1952:
According to documents the seller supplied to the St. Louis museum, the mask was seen in 1952 at an antiquities dealer in Brussels, Belgium.  Roughly ten years later, the provenance says, the object was bought by a private collector and then sold to an unnamed Swiss citizen, in whose private collection it would remain for 40 years. In 1997 the mask was purchased for an undisclosed sum by Phoenix Ancient Art, which sold it one year later to the Saint Louis Art Museum for $499,000. The provenance bases the mask's Belgium stopover on the eyewitness declaration of a Swiss man named Charly Mathez, who in 1997 attested that he'd seen the Ka-Nefer-Nefer at a Brussels gallery 45 years earlier.
"I confirm that I saw this Egyptian piece...in an important antiquities dealership in Brussels, Belgium in 1952," reads Mathez's handwritten declaration, dated February 11, 1997. The declaration, written in French, continues: "I remember this date very well because I often traveled to Belgium on business during this time, and this piece interested one of my clients."
After buying the mask, Saint Louis Art Museum officials contacted Mathez in the hope that he might provide additional information that would bolster the provenance. "It's been a long time," Mathez replied in a letter dated October 5, 1999, conceding that he could not recall the name of the Brussels gallery and apologizing that he could be of no further assistance.
"He is a person who told us that he was in Brussels on business quite a lot in the 1950s. That's what we know," says [SLAM Director]  Benjamin. "But we do have an address for him, and he wrote back to us directly."
How had Phoenix Ancient Art known to contact Mathez in the first place? "The relationship between the two? I don't know," says Benjamin, who came to the museum a year after the mask's purchase. "I'm not aware that that particular question was asked."
Hicham Aboutaam, who now runs Phoenix Ancient Art with his brother Ali, doesn't know either. "I really don't know [who Charly Mathez is]," Aboutaam says from his New York gallery. "I'd have to look at those documents. It's been, what, eight years now?"
Well, now many more years have passed and very little information has come to light about these circumstances. There is no evidence that Mr Aboutaam actually did dig out the documents underpinning a half-million dollar deal done just a few years previously. We still know nothing more about this mysterious Swiss citizen Charly Mathez, and about his claim that the object was already in Brussels as early as 1952. The problem here for SLAM is that this does not tally with what Judge Autrey states in his opinion rejecting the US government's claims. Even this hyper-sceptical judge states that he accepts (as the basis for further discussion):
the Mask was excavated at Saqqara, Eqypt, in 1952, placed in storage in Saqqara following its excavation where it remained until 1959, and then was “packed for shipping” to Cairo, Egypt, in preparation for an exhibit in Tokyo,Japan. The complaint further states that the Mask was “received by police guards” in Cairo in July of 1959, but instead of traveling to Tokyo, it remained in Cairo until 1962 when it was transferred back to Saqqara. The verified complaint further states that the Mask was removed from Saqqara in 1966 and “traveled” to Cairo in “box number fifty-four,” the “last documented location of the Mask in Egypt.” The complaint then goes on to state that in 1973, an inventory was taken of box number fifty-four, whereupon it was discovered the Mask was “missing.” The complaint states, “The register did not document that the Mask was sold or given to a private party during the time frame of 1966 to 1973.”
Placing these two accounts together, we find that a claim is made that in 1952 the same object was both in a Brussels showroom as well as being in Saqqara when exhibits were being packed for a Tokyo exhibition. Now I think it hardly likely that the Egyptians would have packed the wrong mummy mask in 1959 - they had a register with photos showing what it looked like. It was verified as being in that box in 1966. So Mr Charly Mathez was very much mistaken about which female nineteenth century mummy mask he saw. We must put it down to misleading coincidence that the year he indicates as the exact date he saw this other mask, somewhere, happens to coincide with the year in which the SLAM story postulates Goneim received the mask as a gift from the Egyptian government. What a shame that while he recalls the exact year forty years earlier one "client" was very interested in this particular object, he could not recall the name which would allow that person to come forward and corroborate  the sighting. How inconvenient.

There is a bit more information about Mr Mathez however than last time I wrote. It seems that Charly Léo Mathez of Neuchatel died in February 2002. His origin was given as Tramelan in the Berne region where there is a watch-making family of that name. It is interesting that several antiquities have recently appeared on the market - including at least two being sold by Phoenix Antiquities which are given a provenance going back to the collection of "Provenance: Old Collection of Charly Mathez, Neuchâtel, 1960s-1970s / Ex- C. Mathez collection, Neuchâtel" (Anatolian figure, another Anatolian figure, and a seated 'idol'). It would be interesting - and may shed some light on the Ka Nefer Nefer collecting history - to know whether items Mr Mathez had bought any antiquities from (or previously sold any to) the Aboutaams and if so, when.  
 "I really don't know [who Charly Mathez is]," Aboutaam says from his New York gallery.
Laura Young (A Framework for resolution of Claims for Cultural Property', 2007) page 51 discusses the "letter handwritten on February 11, 1997" quoted by Gay, and surmises on its basis that Mathez was perhaps "an art dealer who possibly had business interest connections with Phoenix Ancient Art, S.A.". On page 52 however an interesting fact emerges about that letter.
Several actions were taken by the museum to validate the 1952 known ownership history provided by the seller after the museum purchased the mask [30th March 1998 PMB]. On September 29, 1999 Sidney Goldstein, Associate Director of the Saint Louis Art Museum and Curator of Ancient Art, sent a letter to Charly Mathez in the hope that he could recall the location of the Brussels gallery that he saw the mask in, and if he could provide any additional information. Mathez replied to Goldstein’s inquiry with a handwritten letter dated October 5, 1999 that said “it’s been a long time,” and that he could not recall the name of the Brussels gallery (Saint Louis Art Museum, 1999, p.1). Mathez apologized that he could be of no further assistance. Mathez’s non-participation is significant since the 1952 provenance account of the mask in Brussels was supported by a sole document written by him. The fact that the letter from Mathez was the only document that supported this provenance is evident in a letter dated October 4, 1999 from Goldstein to Peter Lacovara, Curator of Ancient Art at the Michael C. Carlos Museum. Goldstein writes
“finally a bit of news on the mummy mask front. It seems to have been seen by a dealer [Charly Mathez] in Europe in 1952. Stay tuned, I’m still trying to track down the exact location since the only comment I have is a note that is was seen in Brussels!”
The next day Goldstein received the letter from Mathez that stated he could not recall the name of the Brussels gallery or be of any further assistance. It is unclear why Goldstein is reporting to Lacovara on October 4, 1999 that he has just learned that the mask was seen in Brussels. He should have had the 1997 letter from Mathez in hand before the museum’s purchase of the mask on March 30, 1998. If Goldstein did not have the letter, then he had no information at the time the museum purchased the mask that it was out of Egypt by 1952. Without additional information to verify that the mask was in Brussels by 1952, the museum is unable to determine when exactly the mask left Egypt. If the mask did not leave Egypt by 1952, when exactly did it leave and did it leave legally? 
It is unclear why there was renewed interest in the second part of 1999 about the origins of an object which the Museum is adamant they did sufficient due diligence on before the purchase. the surfacing of this letter at this time is quite significant, because it means until the Mathez letter was forwarded by the dealer AFTER the transaction the only information on the basis of which any due diligence could have been done was a rather sketchy letter by the Aboutaams' landlady of July 2, 1997 to Hicham Aboutaam “this is to certify that I sold you the beautiful Egyptian cartonage mask of a lady". A lady? How could SLAM verify on the basis of such a letter that this mask of a lady was the mask of a lady they were considering buying? Do we imagine that the Aboutaams have bought only one female cartonnage mask in their careers ass major dealers in the ancient art world? The Mathez letter was necessary to make the link between this vague landlady's letter and the actual mask. If it had been written by Mathez (why?) on February 11th 1997 (and do we have any proof that it actually was written on that date, is there a postmarked envelope?) why was it only being passed on to the museum in the latter months of 1999, eighteen months after the deal had been done?
[I am grateful to David Gill for pointing out where Tramelan is and the watch-making connection]

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