February 16, 2011

St. Louis Art Museum Sues the United States to Preclude a Forfeiture

The Ka-Nefer-Nefer Mask, acquired in 1998
 by the St. Louis Art Museum
The St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM) has sued the federal government to preclude it from initiating a forfeiture claim against the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask. The museum was approached in January by several U.S. attorneys in January, who indicated an intention to bring a forfeiture action against the mask. Civil forfeiture was the legal mechanism under which the Portrait of Wally litigation and subsequent settlement emerged. It is a powerful tool for claimants, which uses the resources of the federal government, and a favorable burden of proof, to pursue claims for objects which may have been looted or stolen.

But in this case, rather than waiting for the forfeiture action, the museum has decided to try to preclude a suit by the U.S. attorneys, arguing that from December-January of 2005-06, the U.S. was a party to several communications regarding questions with respect to the history of the mask. They use as examples, posts and emails sent by Ton Cremers, of the Museum Security Network. He sent at least two emails to Bonnie Magness-Gardiner of the FBI, INTERPOL, as well as James McAndrew at Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The Museum's complaint quotes emails from Cremers, which were published on the Museum Security Network:
  1. “So I should think that if the Egyptian Government lodged a complaint or request with the USA Government and the FBI Crime Team (to which I am copying this), then the Museum would be obliged to answer the questions.”
  2. “The FBI is just waiting for Egypt to file a complaint. A [sic] soon as Egypt files a complaint [sic] the FBI is expected to act.”
  3. “Maarten Raven, a Dutch archaeologist, saw the mask in the Saqqara and is VERY positive that the mask in the SLAM [Museum] is the same as . . .the one stolen in Saqqara . . . .
The SLAM argues in the complaint that the relevant U.S. government officials had knowledge of the potential claim over five years ago, and the five-year statute of limitations period has expired under 19 U.S.C. § 1621. A court will decide whether these emails, and queries the Museum sent to INTERPOL in the 1990's about the mask are sufficient to have given the U.S. government actual or constructive knowledge of the potential claim. The Museum seeks a declaratory judgment under the Tariff Act that the action is barred by the statute of limitations.

Even if successful, this suit would only preclude a suit by the U.S. government. It would not bless the circumstances surrounding the acquisition of the mask. The mask was acquired in 1998 by SLAM from Phoenix Ancient Art for a reported $500,000. The Museum has attempted to demonstrate its diligence in a number of ways when it acquired the mask.
  • It sent a letter to Mohammed Saleh, the retired director of the Cairo Museum asking about the mask or the existence of similar objects.
  • The Museum contacted the Art Loss Register, INTERPOL, and the International Federation of Art Research.
  • In 1998"counsel for the Museum requested a Swiss attorney to conduct a background investigation of Phoenix, its owners, and Jelinek. Museum counsel received responses from the Swiss attorney on February 18 and March 31, 1998, confirming a Suzana Jelinek resided at the address provided by Phoenix, and confirming Phoenix's company existence, Dun & Bradstreet rating, and that there were no liens or encumbrances on business property belonging to Phoenix."
  • The Museum also sent a letter to the Missouri Highway Patrol requesting a search of the Interpol database.
So these are efforts to look at the history of the object, but certainly are not the best efforts. The Museum did not contact the Supreme Council of Antiquities or the Culture Ministry. The SLAM has told the public and Egypt that they would return the mask to Egypt if they were presented evidence that the mask was looted or stolen, yet Egypt has not presented this evidence. We know that the mask was acquired by the Museum in 1998, and was excavated in 1952. Both Egypt and the Museum have very different versions of the subsequent history of the mask. We are not certain what happened in the intervening years. But given what we know about the antiquities trade we have strong suspicions. The Museum argues the U.S. government has waited too long to pursue its claims that the object was stolen.
  1. Joe Harris, Museum Sues USA Over Mummy Mask, Courthouse News Service, February 16, 2011, http://www.courthousenews.com/2011/02/16/34223.htm (last visited Feb 16, 2011).
  2. Jennifer Mann, Art museum sues to keep Egyptian mummy mask, St. Louis Today, February 16, 2011, http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/article_6a5937bc-0ea6-50ca-94ab-aa45697af009.html (last visited Feb 16, 2011).

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