Friday, June 13, 2014

US Taxpayer to Pay SLAM's Attorney's Fees?

The US taxpayer has already paid dearly to pursue a stale claim to the Ka Nefer Nefer Mummy Mask at the behest of now disgraced (but perhaps to be rehabilitated) Zahi Hawass and the Egyptian Military Dictatorship.  Now, pursuant to a statute meant to reimburse claimants who successfully defend their interests in seized property, the US taxpayer is likely to also be stuck for a bill for the Saint Louis Art Museum's attorney's fees.  This is as it should be, but hopefully the government will be more discriminating in what cases it pursues in the future.  Too often, the decision seems to be made on little more than pressure from the archaeological lobby and the State Department, whose primary interest seems to be to bend over backwards for nationalistic foreign potentates.

12 comments:

John H said...

Fingers have definitely been burnt in the Washington's corridors of power, for no better reason than a 'faceless suit' apparently took the word of the archaeological lobby at face value.

Is the Wind of Change blowing? Let's hope so!

Regards

John Howland
England

arthurmarsh said...

Hi Peter

You've said that the motion was dismissed on 'procedural grounds'. Speaking as a lawyer, do you think that, had the forfeiture complaint been brought within the time limit, it would have succeeded?

To recap, the piece was purchased knowing to have been excavated in 1952, but the elements of the provenance that were supplied by the vendors (seen in an unknown gallery in Brussels in 1952, with a Geneva collector until the 1990s) have been contradicted. In one case, Egyptian documentation locates the mask in Egypt in the 1960s, and in the other, the alleged owner denied owning the piece at all!

The piece was also deliberately damaged between being photographed in Egypt and appearing at SLAM. The owner's name, written on one of the hands, was crudely erased. It's hard to explain this as anything other than an attempt to make the piece less recognizable.

Given all this, and speaking as someone with an interest in ancient objects, do you think the piece had a good 'feel' to it when it was being considered for purchase? Do you think SLAM was well advised to buy the piece? Do you think the motion for seizure has any understandable origins?

Cultural Property Observer said...

Hi Arthur- Keep in mind things have changed since 1998 so I'm not sure its fair to assume the same level of due dilligence should have been done as would be done today for this kind of object. Also, I'm not sure these contentions should be taken on face value. I understand from speaking to several antiquities dealers that artifacts were sold out of the museum until the 1960's so its possible that the mask was legally sold by the Egyptian State. Who is reallly to say otherwise.

arthurmarsh said...

Hi Peter

What do you think would have been done differently between 1998 and now? If present standards of due diligence were in operation in 1998, should SLAM have refused to buy the piece?

I don't know what 'contentions' you mean. The Egyptian govt has provided images of its own log books, showing the mask recorded in Egypt until the 1960s. Reporters spoke to the people who allegedly owned or saw the piece out of Egypt, and they denied saying what the dealers said they said. The sale room in Cairo Museum existed, and pieces exist with its receipts attached, but none of the pieces sold in the 1960s or later were of the standard of the Kanefernefer mask. Even if it had been sold from the Cairo Museum in the 1960s or later, SLAM bought it with the dealers offering a demonstrably false provenance of a Belgian gallery in 1952, and a Swiss woman in the 1990s. What sort of due diligence is involved in that?

The antiquities sales this month have seen millions of dollars of unquestionably legitimate ancient pieces offered for sale. Do you think the Kanefernefer mask, with its unverifiable provenance and the demonstrable untruths given by the dealers, is damaging the reputation of these pieces and the legitimate trade more widely?

Cultural Property Observer said...

Arthur- What you say may or may not be true in the end, but I just find it hard to second guess judgments today made decades ago. I also wouldn't necessarily take anything the Egyptian military dictatorship says either then under Mubarak or now under Sissi at face value. If you recall, Mubarak era officials swore to the District Court in the Schultz case that artifacts were never given away or sold, but the Art Newspaper later reported this was in fact done at the orders of high ranking officials. I covered that awhile back. You'll be happy to learn that the speaker for the IADAA stated that since Schultz dealers in high end material don't purchase items without some indicia they left Egypt before 1983, That should be the focus for such material, not continuing to harass SLAM about an object that was on display in their museum for well over a decade before it became a cause célèbre for the archaeological lobby. My opinion may differ from your opinion, but so be it. I used to do environmental insurance coverage work where we dealt with a lot of decisions and documents made decades before. Often times, there was a lot of contradictory information and that's just part of life.

arthurmarsh said...

Hi Peter

Thanks for your replies. However you haven't answered my question:

Do you think the Kanefernefer mask, with its unverifiable provenance and the demonstrable untruths given by the dealers, is damaging the reputation of unquestionably legitimate pieces and the legitimate trade more widely?

Cultural Property Observer said...

Hi Arthur, I don't think pieces' reputations can be damaged, only dealers' reputations can. The dealer here apparently died in the Swiss Air Crash so he's no longer alive and cannot defend himself or his level of due diligence. So, no I don't think there really is any general fallout from this, though others will no doubt disagree.

arthurmarsh said...

Hi Peter,

I appreciate your reply but, dare I say it, think you're being rather disingenuous here. The dealership is a family dealership - the Aboutaams. The sons worked in the business at the time of the sale of the mask, and have been involved - and suffered legal consequences in the US - in selling other demonstrably looted antiquities since their father's death.

Do you think their reputation, as well as that of their business, is damaging the trade in unquestionably legitimate antiquities?

Cultural Property Observer said...

I understand you obviously have a point of view, but I'll let you judge them. Their father ran the place at the time and they were probably fairly young when this happened. They have had other issues, but have been out of trouble for years as far as I know. And, again as was mentioned at the MOU hearing, levels of due diligence have increased in the trade since 1998.

arthurmarsh said...

I 'obviously' do have a point of view, and I don't think it's a particularly unusual one - that the legitimate trade in antiquities is damaged by the sale of looted and otherwise illegally acquired objects.

I am asking if you share this view. Do you?

Cultural Property Observer said...

Hi Arthur, I simply don't believe in group punishment for the transgressions of some. I've also seen how facts can be manipulated to make things look far worse than they actually are. In the Eric Prokopi case, we had evidence that dinosaur fossils of the same sort Mr. Prokopi was charged with "stealing" under Mongolian law were being openly sold in the Museum store of the Mongolian museum. Not that the press ever gave that any exposure whatsoever. The other facts in that case were also manipulated, but we never got to the merits because the Feds swooped in and basically seized all his assets, making him fold. Those kind of tactics are what really should be getting more exposure in the press. The ends should never be allowed to justify the means here.

arthurmarsh said...

Hi Peter,

Thanks for this. So you admit that some dealers, like the Aboutaams, have 'transgressed' (i.e. broken the law)? In my years reading your excellent blog I don't recall you having said this yet.