Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Egyptian Archaeological Objects Like Cocaine?

As hard as it might be to believe, the US Government has apparently claimed so in a court filing relating to the pending forfeiture action against the SLAM Mummy Mask.

According to a blog by an attorney who previously served as SAFE's Vice President,

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.


Hopefully, the Government is basing its contention on more than the fact that Egypt has had at some point (1983 was the date adopted by the Court in the Schultz case) a patrimony law that vests unequivocal state ownership of Egyptian artifacts found in the ground of that country and that the artifact is indeed "Egyptian."

But, if not, what exactly is the status of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other Egyptian antiquities, significant or not, floating around the United States, according to the USDOJ?

And, if this is indeed what the Government attorneys are contending, why are US government officials seemingly advancing some of the wildest claims of Egyptian cultural property nationalists like the now disgraced former Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass?

Have senior US Government officials cleared such arguments to be made? And, if so, do they truly understand the implications of such claims?

As far as I know, there is no US law on the books that bans the possession of Egyptian artifacts as is the case with cocaine.


Museum Security Network said...

The Ka Nefer Nefer mask was stolen from a warehouse in Saqqara, and must return. It is as simple as that. The Saint Louis Art Museum is not a member of ICOM, and does not have any staff specialized in Egyptian heritage. However, one does not need to be a high profile expert to know that a mask as the Ka Nefer Nefer can never be on the market in a legal way, especially not if offered by the Aboutaams. Even though the SLAM performed some due diligence it should be aware by now that the origin of the mask is illicit, and have the decency to return the mask instead of hiding behind complex legal procedures. As long as the SLAM keeps the mask it is an outlaw museum not belonging to the international museum community.

Ton Cremers

Cultural Property Observer said...

Thank you. This is essentially the Egyptian case as adopted by the USDOJ. SLAM of course sees matters differently.

I've actually heard back in the 1960's the Egyptian cultural authorities would on occassion sell artifacts. Don't know if this is true, but it would be interesting to hear more.

Paul Barford said...

Artefacts such as this? Can you give an actual example (or two) of the sale by "the Egyptian cultural authorities" of a comparable object from a government sponsored excavation in the 1950s (by which time this was in Brussels according to the Aboutaams' collecting history) or the 1960s?

I do not think SLAM sees the facts of the case "differently", it seems that it is trying to claim that, whatever the circumstances, the object cannot be forfeit because the government did not act earlier. But a stolen object is, surely, a stolen object, if not legally (by US law) but certainly morally.