Sunday, July 31, 2011

US Claims SLAM Lacks Legal Standing—Asserts That Mummy Mask is Illegal Contraband—Discovery Reveals More Information

In the latest round of papers filed in court last week, lawyers for the US Attorney’s Office in St. Louis sought to strike the St. Louis Art Museum’s legal claim in the federal lawsuit involving the mummy mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer. Federal authorities sought forfeiture of the mask in March after the museum filed for a declaratory judgment in February seeking quiet title to the artifact. Both cases were filed in federal district court in St. Louis.

Federal attorneys, in their July 27 pleading, contend that SLAM’s “claim of ownership is legally impossible, and as such the Mask is effectively contraband in the hands of the Museum.” The government argues that Egypt’s patrimony law, which gives ownership rights of cultural property to the Egyptians, makes it impossible for the SLAM to own the mummy mask. Therefore, SLAM has no legal standing to assert that it can own the mask.

The government’s brief analogizes SLAM’s claim to the mask as similar to asserting ownership over cocaine—one cannot legally claim ownership. Since the mask cannot be owned by the museum, the museum lacks standing to claim ownership, the government argues.

SLAM says that it has standing to be a legal party in the case because it bought the mask and it possesses it.

The government first disputed SLAM’s legal standing in a July 7 motion. Government attorneys filed the pleading following the receipt of interrogatory answers by SLAM. While the museum wrote that it objected to having to answer questions about how it acquired title to the mask or having to identify documents that would support its claim to lawful ownership, SLAM, nevertheless, answered the interrogatories without waving these objections.

The museum supplied the following information:

• It purchased the mummy mask for $499,000 from Phoenix Ancient Art of Geneva, Switzerland around April 3, 1998.

• Phoenix Ancient Art warranted in a purchase and sale agreement that it had title to the mask and could properly transfer title.

• Phoenix provided provenance information to SLAM before the purchase. “According to Phoenix, in or about 1995, it had purchased the Mask from Ms. Zuzi Jelinek, who in or about the early 1960’s, had purchased the Mask from the Kaloterna (or Kaliterna) private collection,” the interrogatory answer relates.

• The museum conducted a provenance investigation to determine if the mask was stolen by contacting INTERPOL, the Missouri Highway Patrol, the Art Loss Register, and the former director of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo, Dr. Mohammed Saleh.

• The museum conducted an investigation through Swiss legal counsel to determine if there were any liens or encumbrances on the mask. No encumbrances were found.

• Swiss legal counsel confirmed Jelinek’s address.

• The museum contacted Dr. Saleh, who advised SLAM to contact another US museum and who did not say that the mask was stolen or “advise the museum against purchasing the Mask.”

SLAM also provided a spreadsheet of 19 documents, which it claims supports the museum’s legal interest in the mummy mask. The documents can be categorized as a purchase agreement, a bill of sale, letters, and emails.

Missing from the documents list is a purchase or sales agreement between Jenilek and Pheonix Ancient Art. SLAM claimed in past court filings that such a transaction would have occurred in 1995. SLAM, nevertheless, includes on the list of documents a 1997 fax from Phoenix that purportedly attaches a letter of provenance from Jenilek.

Also missing from the documents list are shipping papers or import papers describing the mask’s entry into the United States. Import papers generally describe a package’s date of entry, location of entry, country of origin, value, and contents. The court papers suggest that the mummy mask traveled from Switzerland to the United States in 1998, but this information remains unclear. The mask must have been imported into the United States at some time and at a specific point of entry. But the question of whether papers exist documenting the importation of the Egyptian mummy mask, valued at several thousands of dollars, remains unanswered thus far.