I’m a bit puzzled by all the criticism being directed at the St. Louis Museum of Art. The looting of antiquities destroys archaeological context, but the Ka Nefer Nefer mask was not looted. Both the Museum and those who would have the mask returned to Egypt agree that the mask was professionally excavated in 1952. Egypt has claimed the mask was stolen from a storehouse at some point, while the Museum argues it researched the provenance and found no information to indicate it had been looted. One may argue that the acquisition procedures of museums are generally lacking. And we can certainly criticize the imperfect procedures implemented by the museum to ask questions of the mask in this case—though they did ask some questions in good faith. Though there was no export permit for the mask, but I’m not sure that justifies the criticism of the museum for its suit against the federal government. The museum is only asserting that the Federal government sat on its hands and waited too long to bring a forfeiture claim. This is a perfectly reasonable cause of action, particularly given the enormous benefits to the government and the claimant when a civil forfeiture is brought.
If you are upset that no claims were brought earlier, why not criticize the U.S. government for waiting so long to bring a forfeiture proceeding? I think one of the frustrating things about these repatriation issues are what I’d call the tone deaf nature of much of the rhetoric irrespective of the merits of the claims. This claim is not the same as every other repatriation claim, they all have their strengths and weaknesses. And though I’d agree that many objects need to go back, not all of them do. Universal repatriation should not be the preferred remedy. The Museum here certainly could have checked closer into the history of the mask, but Egypt also didn’t realize the mask was missing. As Mark Durney pointed out, this might be a good reason for renewed emphasis on documenting objects which are in storage. If you don’t, it will be difficult to leverage the trade into ending the sale of objects completely, and that argument loses persuasiveness when the same rhetoric is used for each and every dispute, irrespective of its strengths and weaknesses.