Saturday 14 April 2012

Mr Aboutaam Buys, and Sells, a Mummy Mask

St Louis Art Museum bought a mummy mask  from Phoenix Ancient Art (Invoice to the Saint Louis Art Museum dated March 12, 1998 in SLAM document files). They had been supplied by the seller with a collecting history which seemed acceptable to them at the time, placing it in two central European collections in the early 1960s. Further information was supplied a few months after the purchase (the 4th October 1999 correspondence between  Sidney Goldstein and Peter Lacovara) which seemed to be evidence that it had been on the European market even earlier, in 1952. The object entered the collection at the end of March 1998 (Accession Number: 19:1998).

I have not seen it explicitly stated whose name is on that invoice. This would be worth checking. Phoenix Ancient Art is a family business. It was started in 1968 in Beirut by the Lebanese dealer Sleiman Aboutaam, a wealthy Lebanese businessman who reportedly had amassed a fortune through an exclusive contract to supply general merchandise to oil tankers in the Kuwaiti port of Al Ahmadi (Ron Stodghill, 'Do You Know Where That Art Has Been?', New York Times March 18, 2007). Phoenix Ancient Art (incorporated since 1995) continues today under the leadership of his sons, Hicham Aboutaam and Ali Aboutaam.  The younger son, Hicham (born 1968) having finished studying art history at the University of Michigan began working in father's business before 1998. The galleries changed hands when Sleiman Aboutaam and his wife were sadly among the 229 people who died on board Swissair flight 111 (from JFK New York to Geneva) which crashed six months after the Ka Nefer Nefer mask sale on 2nd September 1998 in the Atlantic off Nova Scotia. Hicham then took over running the New York gallery  and his older brother Ali began running the Geneva gallery. They obviously inherited all their father's stock and documentation.

The possibility therefore exists that the person who was responsible for taking the mask of Ka Nefer Nefer to the US and selling it to the St Louis Art Museum was Sleiman Aboutaam (and therefore we might expect his name to be on the invoice - whether or not it is, St Louis Art Museum has declined to tell us, and that turns out to be rather an interesting circumstance). This would however explain why there are some questions about it that Hicham and Ali are not in a position to answer. Anyway, the SLAM collecting history tells us:
by 1997 - 1998 Phoenix Art, S.A. (Hicham Aboutaam), Geneva, Switzerland, purchased from private collection [5] 
and the footnote 5 to which it refers reads:
[...] [Which?] Aboutaam also states that the mask was in the United States from 1995 until 1997, possibly indicating that it was in the possession of the New York branch of Phoenix Ancient Art, S.A. during that time [letter, September 23, 1997, SLAM document files]. 
[Other texts accept that the object was indeed in the US in 1995, for example one of the earliest, StLToday, 'Art museum sues to keep Egyptian mummy mask', but also 38 other accounts generated only in the last ten days].  So it seems from this that the Aboutaams' purchase and export of the item took place some time before the end of 1995 (remember Zuzi Jelinek's "many, many years ago"?). It is unclear to whom the Aboutaams offered this object. The letter of September 23rd 1997 [who its author was is not stated] seems to be the first approach of Aboutaam to the SLAM mentioned in the information we have. In subsequent documentation Hicham, not Slieman is noted as having bought the object, and having bought it in Geneva. 

 Footnotes [3] to [5] in the SLAM collecting history give us the information from the SLAM document files about the "anonymous Swiss collector" that was stated at the time of purchase to have been the person from whom the Aboutaams had acquired the object:
In a letter of July 2, 1997, addressed to Hicham Aboutaam, the Swiss collector stated that this acquisition took place in the early 1960s . [...] The Swiss collector requested anonymity [...] The Swiss collector's letter of July 2, 1997 confirms the sale of the mask to Aboutaam [SLAM document files].
One or other of the Aboutaams apparently had the mask in the USA since 1995, but only in July 1997 did Hicham Aboutaam get an "I sold you..." letter from a person reportedly his former landlady in order to provide provenance (presumably - since no such material seems to have been passed to SLAM - having no other documentation in hand confirming the sale). Why was this letter not written earlier?  Or were there other letters previous to this?

But look at this:
[3] In a letter dated March 19, 1998 [so a week AFTER the stated date of issue of the invoice for the purchase!], Hicham Aboutaam indicated that an anonymous Swiss collector acquired the mask from the Kaloterna (possibly Kaliterna) family.
It is odd that this suggests that this information is not offered in the July 2nd letter confirming (nota bene) the provenance of the object. Why did this information (apparently) only appear in writing eight and a half months AFTER Zuzi Jelinek wrote that letter and after, it seems, the SLAM had already decided to buy the object? What purpose did providing that additional information serve in March 1998?

While the Charly Mathez letter (intimating that the object was on the market in 1952) is dated "February 11, 1997", but was only shown to the Museum well after the purchase. To whom was it addressed?

Setting out in chronological order how the information obtainable from the material in the public domain about the collecting history as reconstructed by the Aboutaams emerged is quite an interesting exercise - but one I leave up to the reader to attempt, and then draw their own conclusions.

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