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Due diligence at the St Louis Art Museum

I have recently commented on John H. Merryman's support for "due-diligence" procedures and expressed my reservations.

I noticed that this was the phrase used by The Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM) concerning their acquisition of a 19th Dynasty Egyptian mummy mask known as Ka-Nefer-Nefer.

"The dealer provided detailed, documented provenance on this important Egyptian antiquity. The Museum then conducted its own additional research and diligence." [Press release, "Saint Louis Art Museum Calls on Egyptian Official to Disclose Documents Supporting Mummy Mask Allegations", May 12, 2006]

So what is this due diligence?

The History of the Mask: the St Louis view
The mask was purchased by SLAM from Phoenix Ancient Art in Geneva, Switzerland. The press release noted, "The dealer provided detailed, documented provenance on this important Egyptian antiquity." This was then checked, "The Museum independently verified the mask's known ownership history".

Details of the history according to the museum have been published in The Riverfront Times based in St Louis (Malcolm Gay, "Out of Egypt", Riverfront Times, February 15, 2006; see also the BBC.)

The sequence is as follows:
a. Excavated at Saqqara in early 1952 by Mohammed Zakaria Goneim (d. 1959), then chief inspector of antiquities. [Photo]

It is then asserted:
b. The mask was given to an official associated with the excavations. There appears to be no paperwork to support this. (Indeed Goneim in his report, The Buried Pyramid (1956), thanked the Department of Antiquities of the Egyptian Government, Cairo. The implication is that at the time of going to press the mask was in a government store.)

The following sequence is based on documentation provided by Phoenix Ancient Art:
c. Mask seen in 1952 at an antiquities dealer in Brussels. This depends on the testimony of a Swiss national, Charly Mathez made in February 1997. SLAM contacted Mathez in 1999 but he could not remember the details or the name of the gallery. Could he really be certain that the mask he claimed to see in Brussels 45 years earlier was indeed the same one?
d. Mask purchased "by a private collector" in approximately 1962 ("ten years later"). This is named as the "Kaloterna Collection".
e. The private collector sold the mask to "an unnamed Swiss citizen, in whose private collection it would remain for 40 years". It is noted that the "Swiss collector requested anonymity". The Riverfront Times identified the individual as "Zuzi Jelinek of 84 Quai de Cologny, Geneva, Switzerland"; they confirmed that a "Suzana Jelinek-Ronkuline" lived at that address. (Her son is said to have offered the information that the Aboutaam brothers once rented a property on Quai de Cologny belonging to his mother. The Riverfront Times then reported, "Hicham Aboutaam directed the Riverfront Times to a woman identifying herself as Suzana Jelinek, of Zagreb, Croatia. 'I bought the mask many many years ago, and I sold it many many years ago,' says Suzana Jelinek when reached at her Zagreb home. 'I have so many things in my collection that my children don't know what all I have.'")
f. The mask was sold to Phoenix Ancient Art in 1997.
g. The mask was exhibited at the Museum of Art and History in Geneva.
h. The mask was sold to SLAM by Phoenix Ancient Art in 1998 for some US$499,000.

The History of the Mask: Zahi Hawass' view
Zahi Hawass, Secretary-General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, has presented an alternative view ("Dr. Hawass Calls for Return of Stolen Artifact", press release)

a. The mask was excavated in early 1952.
b. The mask was placed in the store at Saqqara (and listed there in 1959). (Hawass rejects the idea that finds were given to the Egyptian excavators.)
c. The store was entered illegally and objects stolen in the late 1980s.
d. The mask was sold by Phoenix Ancient Art to SLAM in 1998.

Hawass set a deadline of May 15, 2006 for the return of the mask which remains in SLAM.

Where does the case go from here?
It seems that there is agreement that the mask was found at Saqqara in early 1952.

Was the piece placed in the excavation store and then stolen? Can we trust the testimony of the Swiss national who claimed, 45 years later, that he had seen that very mask in Brussels? How secure is the documentation presented to SLAM by Phoenix Ancient Art? Whose account can be deemed to be the more reliable?

Hawass seems to have made a strong case. We continue to watch the case.


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