Monday, May 14, 2012

SLAM Opposes Government's Motion to Reopen Ka Nefer Nefer Mummy Mask Case

Attorneys for the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM) oppose reopening the case of United States v. Mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer.  Last week U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan's office urged the eastern district federal court in Missouri to reconsider its March 31 dismissal of the forfeiture case launched to recover the mummy mask. SLAM's lawyers today filed their objection.

Mohammed Zakaria Goneim originally excavated the 19th Dynasty mask at Saqqara, Egypt during the 1950's. The museum bought it on the antiquities market in 1998. Federal authorities say that the mask is illegal contraband, while the museum maintains that it is the owner of legitimate property.

St. Louis Art Museum
 Source: Colin Faulkingham. Public Domain
SLAM's pleading argues that the district court should not reconsider its decision to dismiss the case, and the court should not permit the government to file a newly amended complaint. The museum's attorneys suggest that the government's remedy is to appeal the dismissal of the case to the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals.

The museum's lawyers complain that federal prosecutors
  • did not state any new evidence that should reopen the case,
  • failed to explain any exceptional circumstances that would prompt a reexamination of the dismissal,
  • did not submit an amended complaint when it had the chance, and
  • failed to show that Egyptian law declared ownership over cultural property prior to 1983.
Several passages from SLAM's memorandum of law, quoted below with legal citations omitted, provide both a sketch and the flavor of the museum's arguments.

"In the Eighth Circuit, where an order dismisses a complaint for failure to state a claim but remains silent on whether the order is final, whether it dismisses the entire action, and whether the plaintiff has the right to amend, the entire action is dismissed.... The March 31st Order of this Court is silent ...: it does not state whether it is final, whether it dismisses the entire action, or whether the Government may appeal. As such, the Order was plainly a dismissal of the entire action."

"In its Motion for Reconsideration, the Government does not allege that it has discovered new evidence since the Court’s dismissal of this action that would warrant alteration or amendment of this Court’s Order. Instead, the Government offers evidence it 'could' now present evidence that could have been presented before the dismissal of this case. The Government had ample time between its decision to initiate this lawsuit and the dismissal of this action to provide evidence necessary to bolster its case, but has now missed its opportunity to do so."

"In its Motion for Reconsideration, the Government did not allege any exceptional circumstances that warrant a reexamination of the Court’s final judgment in this case. The Government has had a fair and full opportunity to offer evidence in opposition to Claimant Museum’s Motion to Dismiss, either in the Government’s responsive pleadings or by way of an amended complaint. In fact, the Government now brings to the Court the very same arguments it made in its responsive pleadings to the Claimant Museum’s Motion to Dismiss. Other channels of relief are available to the Government, as it has the option to seek redress from this Court’s Order by appeal to the Eighth Circuit. For all these reasons, this Court should deny the Government’s Motion for Reconsideration."

"The appropriate time for the Government to submit an amended Complaint was at some point during the nearly eleven months between the Claimant Museum’s Motion to Dismiss and the Court’s Order dismissing this action due to those very insufficiencies. Now, more than a year after the Museum first identified the deficiencies of the Verified Complaint, the Government offers only facts it 'could' include in an amended Complaint. But the Government stops there, without submitting a proposed amended Complaint, any documentary evidence of the additional facts the Government 'could' provide, or even a specific description in its Motion of what facts exist to cure the myriad defects identified by the Court."

"[O]ne of the marked deficiencies in this case [is that] until 1983, there was no Egyptian law that unequivocally established Egyptian ownership of items like the Mask.  It is well settled that such a clear declaration of ownership is necessary before exportation of an article constitutes theft. The Government’s objection about being required to 'establish the date, location, or motive behind the stealing, let alone the identity of the thief' overstates what the court expected. In its Order, the Court used the absence of those very basic 'factual and logical steps' to illustrate the utter lack of any facts connecting the Mask’s absence from Egypt with its 'theft.'"

"[T]he Government in this case offered no facts regarding: the date (or even the year) of the theft; the place from which the Mask was stolen; the identity of the thief or thieves (or even so much as speculation as to the identity); the location of the Mask at any time between its suspected location in 1966 and its purchase by the Museum in 1998; the year in which the Mask was exported from Egypt; that there was any law enforcement investigation conducted and, if so, what it revealed; the chain or suspected chain of custody; the identity of any witnesses to either the theft, recording, transport, storage or possession of the Mask in the intervening three decades; or the Egyptian patrimony law that purportedly established Egypt’s ownership of the Mask."

"Nevertheless, the Government requests leave to amend its Verified Complaint. It is interesting that after more than six years during which the Museum has repeatedly sought--first from the Egyptian government, then from the United States government--any evidence suggesting theft or even that the Museum’s possession of the Mask was less than legitimate, the Government now hints at but still does not specify what additional facts may satisfy its burden. The Government has clearly had sufficient time, even within the time frame of this case, to amend its Verified Complaint to cure the deficiencies."