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.