Raiders of the Lost Mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer

By Gabriella Khorasanee, JD on July 11, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Many recent claims of stolen art relate back to Nazi-looted art during World War II -- but not all cases. Many countries, the likes of Turkey and Egypt, with rich cultural heritages are often challenged with the reality of stolen antiquities, and the difficult legal maneuverings needed to repatriate artifacts.

The most recent case involves the Mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer, but was decided on a procedural technicality that has the Egyptian Antiquities Minister Mohamed Ibrahim very upset.

The Mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer

The Mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer, which translates to "The Twice-Beautiful Ka" is a 3,000-year old funerary mask discovered in 1951 in Egypt, according to the Riverfront Times. It was last seen in Egypt in 1966, and in 1973 Egyptian museum employees found the mask was missing. In 2006, the Egyptian Government found out that the mask was purchased by the Saint Louis Art Museum ("SLAM") in 1998, and repeatedly requested the museum to return the mask to Egypt.

In 2011, SLAM officials met with U.S. representatives who threatened a forfeiture action if they did not return the mask to Egypt. In response, SLAM filed an action for declaratory judgment asking that the Mask be declared not subject to forfeiture. In response, the U.S. filed a motion to stay the declaratory judgment action, and filed a complaint for civil forfeiture under 19 U.S.C. § 1595a(c).

Eighth Circuit

What happened next was a procedural mess. The Government was late in making filings, and made other technical gaffes. On this basis, the court affirmed the district court's denial of the government's post-dismissal motions. Judge Murphy wrote a concurring opinion where she agreed that the Government's motion was untimely, but expressed concern over the substantive issues. She noted that under § 1595a, there is no "innocent owner" defense as there is in Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act, resulting in "innocent owners" sometimes having to forfeit their property. She added, "While this case turns on a procedural issue, courts are bound to recognize that the illicit sale of antiquities poses a continuing threat to the preservation of the world's international cultural heritage."

Moving Forward

Though the Government's forfeiture action failed, the initial declaratory judgment action is still pending, so the district court may have a chance to decide the case on the merits anyway. And, Egyptian Minister of Antiquities is showing no signs of giving up, he stated that he will resort to the private sector in the United States to practice pressures on St. Louis Art Museum according to the agreements signed in this regard ... [and] stressed that Egypt will not abandon its right to "Ka-nefer-nefer" mask."

On the other hand, the Museum stated, "The court's decision is good news for the Saint Louis Art Museum as it allows us to continue to provide all visitors to the museum, and the citizens we serve, this rich experience in the ancient art," reports the Riverfront Times.

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