Case Review: US v. Mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer (8th Cir.)

By Angelea Selleck
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After nearly three years of legal battles between the United States government and the St. Louis Art Museum (the “SLAM”), the forfeiture case known as U.S. v. Ka-Nefer-Nefer (8th Cir. Jun 2014) has finally come to an end. Ka-Nefer-Nefer was an ancient Egyptian noblewoman during the Nineteenth Dynasty. The case was concerned with the ownership of the sacred funerary mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer, which the SLAM purchased in good faith for half a million dollars from Phoenix Ancient Art, an international art gallery based in Switzerland with a murky past. Years following the purchase, Egyptian authorities approached the SLAM, claiming that the mask was stolen and illegally removed from Egypt. Upon this realization, the United States government attempted to seize the mask from the SLAM with a civil forfeiture action. Instead of complying with the government’s request, the SLAM sued the US government to assert their ownership. On 12 June 2014 the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the mask would to stay in the possession of the SLAM.

Before discussing the details of the case, it is important to elaborate briefly on the process that museums undergo when acquiring an antiquity. Most museums in North America abide by the Code of Ethics set out by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). The SLAM is a member of the AAMD and has adopted the principles set out in the Guidelines on the Acquisition of Archaeological Material and Ancient Art, which, among other requirements, state that museums should thoroughly research the ownership history of a work prior to the acquisition and make a strong effort to obtain all written records and documentation regarding its history. More importantly, the Guidelines also emphasize that museums should not acquire a work unless the provenance research confirms that the work was outside its country of discovery before 1970, which reflects the criteria in UNESCO’s 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The SLAM is not a member of ICOM however, which tends to carry more weight in ethical matters.

It is also important to point out that it is rather uncommon for museums to sue the government when asked to return an object. Patty Gerstenblith, DePaul School of Law Professor, commented that this is a very unusual response to forfeiture claims and it is the first time a public institution like a museum decided to expend its funds to proactively sue the government.  Neither the museum’s nor the government’s litigation costs have been disclosed as of yet.

The United States government claims that the mask was stolen before it was brought into the country, thereby violating the Tariff Act of 1930. The United States filed a motion based on the National Stolen Property Act (NSPA), which allows the US government to prosecute on behalf of a foreign government and defend their national ownership law. The Act serves to deter U.S. citizens from dealing with international stolen goods. The strength of NSPA was illustrated in the landmark case U.S. v Schultz, where prominent art dealer Frederick Schultz was convicted of importing and selling looted Egyptian antiquities.

In the Schultz case, the U.S. court upheld Egypt’s patrimonial law, Egyptian Law on the Protection of Antiquities Law 117, which asserts Egyptian public ownership of antiquities and restricts private possession or ownership of cultural property. This law is arguably one of the world’s clearest ownership laws and probably the most efficient route for repatriation by stating all antiquities are the property of the government. Upholding Egypt’s patrimonial laws could have been a more efficient way to return the mummy mask to its original owners.

Screen Shot 2014-08-10 at 9.50.52 PMAccording to Egyptian records, the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask was excavated in 1952 and registered as Egyptian property a year later. It was then placed in a storage facility at Saqqara and later sent to Cairo in 1966. It was not until 1973, during a routine inventory, that museum authorities noticed the mask was missing. The Museum has no record of sale or transfer of the mask between 1966-1973. The SLAM maintains that they conducted due diligence and purchased the mask from reputable sources. Furthermore, the SLAM claims that prior to the purchase, they inquired about its provenance with the Art Loss Register, the International Foundation for Art Research, INTERPOL and consulted with the then-director Mohammed Saleh, of the Cairo Museum. All of these institutions had confirmed that this piece was licit and there were no reports of the mask missing at the time of the proposed purchase.

In order to assert their ownership of the mask, SLAM maintained that they purchased the mask in good faith and that the statue of limitations had expired when the United States filed for forfeiture. The SLAM claims that the US government received notice of the importation in 2005 but only filed the forfeiture complaint until 2011. Due to the fact that the statute of limitations in the United States is five years, and more than five years have passed, SLAM believes that they have rightful ownership of the mask. 

In April 2012, the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri, dismissed the US government’s forfeiture complaint for failing to articulate with specificity “how the mask was stolen and smuggled, or how it was brought into the United States contrary to law”. Afterwards, the US filed a motion to reconsider when the government revealed new information that could support an amended complaint. However, the Court denied this motion and the parties attempted to settle this matter out of court. The negotiations failed and US government then appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court to re-open the case . The issue raised in their appeal is whether the District Court abused its discretion in denying the government’s post-dismissal motion for leave to file an amended civil forfeiture complaint.

Oral arguments took place in mid-January 2014, during which time Circuit Court Judge James Loken held that the US government made mistakes in the eyes of the District Court and that “they will have to beg for a do-over”.  The Court resumed on 12 June 2014 where the Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s procedural ruling.  Judge Diana Murphy acknowledged that the lower court did not abuse its discretion when dismissing the government’s forfeiture case. Murphy also emphasized that “the government was dilatory” with their amended complaint. In addition, she included cautionary comments about the subject matter of the case:

“The substantive issues underlying this litigation are of great significance, and not only to museums which responsibly seek to build their collections. The theft of cultural patrimony and its trade on the black market for stolen antiquities present concerns of international import…

…While this case turns on a procedural issue, courts are bound to recognize that the illicit sale of antiquities poses a continuing threat to the preservation of the world’s international cultural heritage. Museums and other participants in the international market for art and antiquities need to exercise caution and care in their dealings in order to protect this heritage and to understand that the United States might ultimately be able to recover such purchases.”

While the case of the US v. Mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer has been settled, it will be interesting to see if there will be any future diplomatic actions undertaken by either the United States or Egypt for the return of the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask.

Sources:

 

About the Author: Angelea Selleck is a contributing writer with Center for Art Law; she is a research intern at Iran Human Rights Documentation Center in New York.

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