Friday, March 30, 2012

Ka Nefer Nefer Case Resumes After Lengthy Hiatus

St. Louis Art Museum
Lawyers for the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM) filed a sur-reply last week in the case of U.S. v. Mask of Ka Nefer Nefer after activity in the case--at least with regard to legal filings--abruptly ended in August 2011.  SLAM submitted its pleading to the eastern district federal court in Missouri.  The court submission comments on the running dispute about whether the museum has legal standing to remain in the case.

The government filed a claim in March 2011 to forfeit the mask of Ka Nefer Nefer located at SLAM.  The 19th Dynasty Egyptian mummy mask of a noblewoman is alleged by the government to have been stolen from Egypt.

The government's forfeiture action was a response to SLAM's legal effort in February 2011 to quiet the title of the mask so that the museum potentially could own the artifact without worry.  In July 2011, federal lawyers filed a motion to knock SLAM off the forfeiture case, arguing that the museum could make no colorable legal claim to ownership because the mask is a stolen object.  The motion to strike SLAM from the case set off a volley of legal pleadings related to whether the Ka Nefer Nefer mask is contraband.  The federal government argued that possession of the mask was akin to possessing cocaine, which is illegal.

After a long absence of legal submissions, SLAM's most recent sur-reply picks up the argument once again.  The museum charges that it "has consistently taken the position that the Government’s claim is barred from the outset by the statute of limitations and that its forfeiture claim must fail because the Government is unable to prove the Mask was stolen. In raising the arguments it does, the Government is attempting to delay or avoid the consideration of those questions by confusing the standard for constitutional standing and making the bizarre suggestion that the Court pretend that the Museum claims an interest 'not of a centuries old Egyptian mask, but rather a kilogram of cocaine.'  In doing so, the Government so muddles and confuses the term 'contraband,' and the significance that the term carries, that some clarification is necessary." (citations omitted).

SLAM adds that the mummy mask is not contraband per se (such as illegal drugs) "as [artifacts] may be lawfully owned and become contraband only based on a connection with a criminal act."  Relying on U.S. v. Jeffers, 342 U.S. 48, 52-54 (1951), the museum asserts that "[t]he Supreme Court has recognized that, in the absence of a law foreclosing property rights, artifacts can be privately owned."

SLAM criticizes the government, saying that "[t]he Government’s evolving positions with respect to the ownership issue seem to be at war with themselves."  The museum argues that Egypt's patrimony law, which claims ownership of cultural objects found on its soil, is argued by the government to be a law granting private ownership in one pleading and alternatively, in another pleading,  a law that restricts private ownership.

SLAM concludes by reasserting that it has made a colorable claim to ownership to the mummy mask.

The government filed papers on March 28, 2012 for leave to reply to the sur-reply.