A US District Court has dismissed a forfeiture claim brought by the United States on behalf of Egypt for a mummy mask owned by the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM). The Government had claimed that the artifact, known as the Mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer, was "stolen" under Egyptian law. The mask in question has been on display at SLAM since 1998.
In pertinent part, the Court stated,
The verified complaint does not provide a factual statement of theft, smuggling, or clandestine importation. Rather, the complaint merely states that the Mask was found to be "missing' from Egypt in 1973. Although the Government alleges, in conclusory fashion, that "the register did not document that the Mask was sold or given to a private party during the time frame 1966 to 1973," the Complaint is completely devoid of any facts showing that the Mask was sold or given to a private party during the time frame of 1966 to 1973," the complaint is completely devoid of any facts showing that the Mask was "missing" because it was stolen and then smuggled out of the country... The Government's legal conclusion, in paragraph 22 of the verified complaint, that "[b]ecause the Mask was stolen, it could not have been lawfully exported from Egypt or lawfully imported into the United States," misses a number of factual and logical steps, namely: (1) an assertion that the Mask was actually stolen; (2) factual circumstances relating to when the Government believes the Mask was stolen; (3) facts relating to the location from which the Mask was stolen; (4) facts regarding who the Government believes stole the Mask; and (5) a statement or identification of the law which the Government believes applies under which the Mask could be considered stolen and/or illegally exported.
The Government cannot simply rest on its laurels and believe that it can initiate a civil forfeiture proceeding on the basis of one bold assertion that because something went missing from one party in 1973 and turned up with another party in 1998, it was therefore stolen and/or imported or exported illegally.
Ironically, the decision was released the same day it was reported that the instigator of the claim against SLAM, former Egyptian antiquities chief Zahi Hawass, is to face corruption charges in Egypt, related to a National Geographic sponsored exhibit in the United States. See http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/38308/Egypt/Politics-/Egypts-Indiana-Jones-faces-charges.aspx
One hopes that the US Government will be as aggressive investigating whether American archaeologists and the National Geographic were parties to any corrupt practices involving Hawass, as the US Government has been in going after SLAM over the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask.