Do you need a note from a criminal to prove an artefact is stolen?

Looks nice, but are looks enough?

This is the death mask of Ka Nefer Nefer. I can tell you she was con­nec­ted with Rameses II in some way, but not a lot else. It hard to find inform­a­tion about her lie on the web because her death mask is the big story as far as Ka Nefer Nefer goes. Or rather it’s the travels her mask has been on and the dogged determ­in­a­tion of the Saint Louis Art Museum to drag its own name through the mud.

The mask was found in 1952 in Saqqara by the Egyptian archae­olo­gist Mohammed Zakaria Goneim, as part of the exacava­tions of the pyr­amid of Sekhemkhet. After this events are dis­puted. In 1998 it was dis­covered again when the Saint Louis Museum of Art pur­chased it. They got it from Phoenix Ancient Art, who say it came from an anonym­ous Swiss col­lec­tion before them. The Saint Louis Art Museum is fur­ther claim­ing that a Belgian dealer had it back 1952. This would appear to be an object that’s been shuffled around deal­ers, like yesterday’s amphorae. If you read yesterday’s entry you’ll also remem­ber I said there was going to be a test. Here it is.

You are offered an Egyptian death mask from a site which was claimed to be the most import­ant dis­cov­ery since the tomb of Tutankhamen. The sellers claim it left Egypt in 1952 as ‘part­age’ the prac­tice where a host nation will give for­eign excav­a­tion teams some of the arte­facts it finds. Do you:
A) Say “Hang on, Goneim was Egyptian, how did part­age hap­pen? It would have been held in an Egyptian museum. I’d bet­ter con­tact the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt to check the story.
B) Say “Owned by an anonym­ous Swiss bloke? That’s good enough for me. After all if the seller’s hon­est then he wouldn’t lie about a thing like that.”

If you scored mostly ‘A’s: Congratulations! You would not be not look­ing like a prize buf­foon. The claim of part­age looks ludicrous as these couple of para­graphs from the Riverfront Times make clear.

That runs counter to everything I would expect,” says Robert Ritner, a pro­fessor at the Oriental Institute, an Egyptology research cen­ter at the University of Chicago. “If it left Egypt that early, it prob­ably left improp­erly. Any excav­ator for the Egyptian gov­ern­ment is under oblig­a­tion to provide that mater­ial back to Egypt — even in the ‘50s. It isn’t his per­sonal loot that he can then take out himself.”

It never hap­pens,” seconds University of Virginia art-history pro­fessor Malcolm Bell, who is also vice pres­id­ent for pro­fes­sional respons­ib­il­it­ies at the Archaeological Institute of America. “It sounds like the sort of thing you could say if you didn’t really know the cir­cum­stances and you were try­ing either explain or invent. But it’s not the sort of thing that happens.”

In his own writ­ing Goneim also indic­ates that it was Egyptian prop­erty. Goneim thanked the Egyptian gov­ern­ment for allow­ing him to use pho­tos of the mask in one of his books. You don’t tend to thank someone else for giv­ing per­mis­sion to use pho­to­graphs of your own prop­erty. There’s also the addi­tional prob­lem that the mask was recor­ded as being in the Saqqara ware­house in 1952 and 1959, but not in 1965.

If you scored mostly ‘B’s: Congratulations! You’re gull­ible enough to work in the Saint Louis Museum of Art pur­chas­ing antiquit­ies. This is no mean acheive­ment. The Saint Louis Art Museum say they checked to make sure the Swiss owner was a real per­son. So did the Riverfront Times, and they found she was a woman who had no idea about the mask. But she had ren­ted prop­erty to two Lebanese men, Ali and Hicham Aboutaam, who turned out to be Phoenix Ancient Art. Since selling the mask to Saint Louis, the Aboutaam broth­ers have been con­victed of smug­gling illi­cit antiquit­ies. The Aboutaams are so dodgy even the Met has con­cerns about them. Assuming the Saint Louis Art Museum isn’t inten­tion­ally abet­ting illegal activ­it­ies (and I’d like to make clear to the museum and their law­yers I am def­in­itely not accus­ing them of this), then the logical con­clu­sion is that who­ever approved the deal was com­pletely incompetent.

The defence of the Saint Louis Museum of Art is that their pur­chase was legal, there­fore they should keep the mask. I don’t know enough about American law to say whether or not someone keeps own­er­ship if they unknow­ingly receive stolen goods. Even if they do, this is con­fus­ing legal with moral. It is for instance legal to have unpro­tec­ted sex with the Saint Louis Blues while your wife has gone to the shops, but I don’t know any­one who would encour­age that kind of beha­viour. The museum’s own­er­ship of the mask is based on a shock­ing lack of curi­os­ity about the ori­gin of the piece. As for the claim that the mask leg­ally left Egypt via Goneim, the claim is legal in this sense; it only works because the dead can’t sue for libel. Goneim was not a cipher.

After find­ing the pyr­amid Goneim wrote a book and toured the USA. Sadly he gained enemies and on his return to Egypt life took a tra­gic turn. He was accused of smug­gling out a ves­sel found by Quibell and Lauer found in the Djoser com­plex. There was no evid­ence but he was repeatedly inter­rog­ated by the police and slandered. Lauer under­took to clear Goneim’s name and even­tu­ally found the ves­sel in a stor­e­room in Saqarra. By the time he found it, it was too late. Overwhelmed by the shame of a crime he didn’t com­mit, Goneim drowned him­self in the Nile in 1957. The records show Goneim didn’t take the mask for his own either. In view of his death I think the Saint Louis Art Museum’s claim is par­tic­u­larly repugnant.

Saint Louis’ insist­ence on hold­ing the mask raises quite a few unpleas­ant ques­tions. Does the slander of an inno­cent man mat­ter? Is it accept­able to gain arte­facts by any means, so long as you make sure you’re ignor­ant of exactly what those means are? Is it enough that an arte­fact is pretty? They don’t seem that bothered about answer­ing any.

I found this story via the International Herald and Tribune, how­ever the best write-up is in the Riverfront Times from earlier this year. Even older is this 2006 art­icle from Al-Ahram

From blogs, there’s pieces by Paul Barford this year and Derek Fincham from last year. I think they’re both more polite about the museum than me, which might be more pro­duct­ive. It’s just the read­ing round the sub­ject made the Saint Louis Art Museum appear more and more slimy to the extent that you won­der if they have a limit. Exactly how bad would the proven­ance of an arte­fact be before they refused to touch it? Would you actu­ally need to have a note from a crim­inal to prove an arte­fact was stolen?

I’ll try and write up a review of Sharon Waxman’s Loot for tomorrow.

4 thoughts on “Do you need a note from a criminal to prove an artefact is stolen?

  1. Paul Barford

    Alun, thank you for a most read­able piece on this affair.

    If I was “more polite about the museum” in my blog text than you, I can­not have made my true feel­ings too clear.….

    Paul Barford

  2. Dr. Kwame Opoku

    This case shows how far some will go to defend the indefens­ible instead of seek­ing an amic­able settlement.

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