CAIRO: A U.S. Court rejected a suit against the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM) demanding the return of a 3,500-year-old ancient Egyptian mask because the claimants had no evidence to prove the mask was stolen, reported Youm7.
The Egyptian government claimed the mask entered the U.S. in violation of customs laws, and the U.S. government filed a civil forfeiture action against SLAM in March 2010.
The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals said “The claimant cannot even be sure of the who, what, when, or where of the alleged events surrounding the alleged ‘stealing,’ nor can the museum ascertain if the government is pursuing the mask based on alleged theft or a unlawful import/export, or both,” reported Artlawreport.com.
The funerary mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer belonged to an ancient Egyptian noblewoman who lived during the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II (1279 B.C – 1232 B.C.) The mask was excavated within Ka-Nefer-Nefer’s tomb in Memphis necropolis, 26 km south of Giza Pyramids by Egyptian archaeologist Mohammed Zakaria Ghoneim in 1951.
Amid the excitement of the new discovery, the fate of the mask was obscured since it disappeared from public view for nearly 50 years until 1998, when SLAM, according to information on its website, purchased the mask for $500,000 dollars from Phoenix Ancient Art, an antiquities dealership owned by Lebanese brothers Hicham and Ali Aboutaam.
“When antiquities are being sold, the purchasers should verify its provenance, a document that traces an artifact’s chain of ownership back to its excavation,” head of the Museums Sector at the Ministry of Antiquities Ahmed Sharaf told The Cairo Post.
Sharaf said SLAM was not able to confirm the mask’s history before they purchased it from Phoenix Ancient Art in 1998, which “means that it left Egypt illegally.”
The mask, along with other finds excavated by Ghoneim, was immediately escorted to the Egyptian museum, Ashraf said, adding the museum’s management put the mask into storage, to discover its disappearance in 1973, he said.
Former Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawaas wrote several letters to SLAM’s board of directors, the FBI, and Interpol to retrieve the mask and even urged children to boycott the museum, head of the Ministry of Antiquities’s restored artifacts department Ali Ahmed told The Cairo Post.
Ahmed said SLAM museum officials replied that to date, that they have not seen enough evidence that the mask was stolen thus have the right to keep it.
“There is no evidence showing the mask left Egypt legally. But SLAM is glad that Egypt has not proven that it was stolen,” Ali said.
SLAM claims that Ghoneim, who excavated the tomb, might have been given the mask by the Egyptian government and sold it later, Ali added.
“SLAM did not present any document to support the allegation that then-Egyptian government gave Ghoneim the mask,” dean of Minya University’s Faculty of Tourism and Hotels Sherif el-Saban told the Cairo Post.