Why Get so Worked up over the Ka Nefer Nefer Mask?

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.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

2 thoughts on “Why Get so Worked up over the Ka Nefer Nefer Mask?”

  1. One might also ask why all the emphasis on this mask when it appears at least possible based on allegations from Egyptian sources that Mubarak government officials skimmed off substantial monies that were earmarked for archaeology in the country. Keep in mind that the US government alone has given Egypt millions in aid that was supposed to help Egypt turn its archaeological sites into tourist destinations and US museums, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel have given further millions for travelling shows and TV programs. One wonders where all this money went and whether all the blather about the mask is in some sense just a diversion from what investigators should really be looking at.

  2. In your first sentence, the word “criticism” links to our blog’s homepage. Presumably, you were referring to our content (perhaps this) that “puzzled” you. Since our post does not actually contain what you described, your reference is puzzling. More important, we find several points in your post puzzling:

    You wrote:
    “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.” 

    You appear to concede that no Egyptian export permit was granted. Our post merely says that “no export permit has surfaced showing that the mask was legally removed from the country in accordance with Egyptian cultural patrimony law (Egyptian Law No. 215 on the Protection of Antiquities) that was in force at the time.” If SLAM did not perform proper due diligence, and verification that a valid Egyptian export permit exists before acquiring the mask in 1998 then it should be criticized. It should also be criticized for ignoring the AAMD admonition, included in its Professional Practices in Art Museums since 1973, not to acquire works that have been stolen or removed in violation of a treaty or convention to which the U.S. is a party. SAFE promotes respect for the laws and treaties that enable nations to protect their cultural property and preserve humanity’s most precious non-renewable resource: the intact evidence of our undiscovered past. And SAFE did not, and does not, criticize SLAM for filing a lawsuit asking the court for a declaratory judgment, which is thoroughly discussed elsewhere.

    You wrote:
    “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?”
    
SAFE did not express upset, and is not upset, that “no claims were brought earlier.” We did not criticize the U.S. government because we see no reason to do so.

    You described a frustration over the “tone deaf nature of much of the rhetoric irrespective of the merits of the claims” and that “universal repatriation should not be the preferred remedy.” SAFE does not call for “universal repatriation.” The interview on PBS Worldfocus correctly states that “SAFE does not favor or call for large-scale repatriation.” 

    You wrote:
    “The Museum here certainly could have checked closer into the history of the mask, but Egypt also didn’t realize the mask was missing.”

    SLAM had a duty to verify that the mask has a valid export permit. The working paper submitted by the Egyptian delegation to a 2009 conference on illicit trade in cultural property reads: “[T]he law No. 215 for the year 1951 … prohibited completely taking antiquities out of Egypt, unless there were multiple items similar to them, provided the approval of the Department of Antiquities was granted. This approval should be in writing, based upon the minutes of meetings of committees formed of the director of the concerned museum, one of the museum curators for examination and reviewing, in presence of a representative of the Department of Customs. This means that unavailability of a copy of this license or approval, implies that violation of the law took place and antiquities, in this case, would have been stolen or smuggled from Egypt.” (See page 3 at http://tinyurl.com/5ro34fx)

    So, if you were asking SAFE “why we get so worked up over Ka-Nefer-Nefer?”, here’s why: SLAM has not undertaken a full, rigorous and systematic due diligence procedure to exclude the possibility that the mask was not removed illegally from Egypt, SLAM has thus far been unable to present verified documentation showing that the mask did leave Egypt in a legal manner as the museum has suggested.

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