U.S. Initiates Forfeiture

The Mask on Display in St. Louis

As expected the United States has initiated a civil forfeiture action over the Ka Nefer Nefer mask purchased by the St. Louis Art Museum in 1998. The government holds a number of important advantages in these forfeiture proceedings, which is why the Museum brought a suit last month to preclude a forfeiture, based on a lapsed five-year limitations period. As the government’s complaint explains, the mask was professionally excavated, so this is not a case of looting and destruction of context. Rather the mask was either stolen later or was given to one of the archaeologists working at the site.

The government’s filing outlines what it suspects happened next: that the mask was stolen sometime between 1966, when it was shipped off to Cairo for an exhibit, and 1973, when the Egyptian Museum in Cairo ran an inventory and discovered it missing. Box number 54, in which it had been packed, was empty. 

In 2006, Egyptian officials learned the St. Louis museum had bought the mask from Phoenix Ancient Art, in New York. 

The museum has said it thoroughly researched the mask’s ownership history before buying it, and was given no indication that there were questions about how it arrived in the U.S. 

The museum’s research showed the mask was part of the Kaloterna private collection during the 1960s, before it was purchased in Switzerland by a Croatian collector, Zuzi Jelinek, who then sold the mask to Phoenix Ancient Art in 1995. 

It also maintains in its lawsuit that the government’s statute of limitations for seizing the mask has expired.

  1. U.S. demands art museum hand over Egyptian artifact | Reuters, Reuters, March 16, 2011, http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/17/us-museum-mask-idUSTRE72G06E20110317?feedType=RSS&feedName=domesticNews (last visited Mar 17, 2011).
  2. Jennifer Mann, Government sues to seize St. Louis museum’s mummy mask, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 17, 2011, http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/article_98d72244-9976-5b8a-a73d-5c211c6a771b.html (last visited Mar 17, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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