Earlier this week Zahi Hawass made some really over-the-top statements with respect to this object, the Ka-nefer-nefer mask which was purchased from Phoenix Ancient Art in 1998. Some have noted this is an attempt to “Marion True-ize” Benjamin. I’ve discussed in-depth the history of this mask before. Neither Egypt nor the St. Louis Art Museum have been able to give us a complete and definite story of the mask, but I certainly don’t think it is a case where repatriation is called for, even if we accept Egypt’s version of events. Part of the reason for that, is the Egyptian government is either unable or unwilling to adequately document its existing stores of antiquities. If we adopt Egypt’s version of events, the mask was stolen from a storehouse. If so, a properly documented collection register could have been submitted to the Art Loss Register, and when the SLAM considered purchasing the object in 1998, the acquisition wouyld have been halted.
Some commenters have even labelled the SLAM director, Brent Benjamin “controversial” because of the dispute. I think those accusations are over the line, and very unhelpful. Benjamin has done the right thing in this case, and it should be noted the mask was acquired before he took his post at SLAM. Earlier this week in an AP article Hawass called him a “stupid man” who “doesn’t understand the rules here”. I’d like to suggest that Hawass — who perhaps does a lot of great things for Egyptian heritage — has a clouded view of the legal rules in this case. An unhelpful mistake made worse by a proposed Egyptian law which may “give [Egypt] the power to take people to court in Egypt … (Benjamin) will be wanted in Egypt.” Is this the way to conduct international negotiations? What’s more, if the mask had been in an Egyptian storehouse, and it is so important as to warrant this level of rhetoric, why wasn’t it documented by Egypt?