“St. Louis bought something from these guys? Boy, they should have known a lot better than that. As a museum director and as a curator, the very name 'Aboutaam' — bells would have started ringing immediately.” Thomas Hoving, former director of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, is not alone in his wariness of dealings with the brothers Hicham and Ali Aboutaam and the Phoenix Ancient Art dealership they operate in Geneva. Regardless, when the St. Louis Art Museum saw the opportunity to purchase a 19th dynasty burial mask from the Aboutaam brothers, they leaped upon it.
With last month's international conference to repatriate cultural heritages, Dr. Zahi Hawass renewed his 2006 claim that the St. Louis Art Museum return the Mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer. Discovered in early 1952 by Mohammed Zakaria Goneim above the Step Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara, the mask was found covering the head and shoulders of an unmummified woman. She was thoroughly decomposed, buried only wrapped in a reed mat, but the beauty of the mask lead him to name her Ka-Nefer-Nefer: the Twice-Beautiful Ka.
Though publicized along with the rest of the dig, the mask made little stir, especially following the discovery that the sarcophagus within the pyramid was empty. In the years that followed, artifacts of this dig were moved to a storehouse in Saqqara. In January of 1959, Goneim committed suicide amid accusations of looting antiquities.
Following his death, no public mentions were made of the mask until 1998, when the St. Louis Art Museum purchased it from Phoenix Ancient Art. Inside of a year, questions of the mask's provenance arose. The provenance supplied to the museum by its dealers is based upon the declaration of Charly Mathez, a Swiss citizen who claimed to have seen the mask in a Brussels auction house in 1952.
"I confirm that I saw this Egyptian piece...in an important antiquities dealership in Brussels, Belgium in 1952," reads Mathez's handwritten declaration, dated February 11, 1997. The declaration, written in French, continues: "I remember this date very well because I often traveled to Belgium on business during this time, and this piece interested one of my clients."*
According to the provenance, ten years after this sighting, it was sold to a private collector, who then resold it to an unnamed Swiss national, who kept it for 40 years prior to selling it to Phoenix Ancient Art in 1997. When Mathez was unable to provide the name of the auction house where he saw the mask, the museum hired an antiquities expert to validate the provenance. He concluded that the provided documentation “suggests that the mask was never displayed with the other excavated objects and was probably awarded to the excavator himself. This would correspond with its appearance on the European art market soon after its excavation.”
The problem with his assertion is assuming that the Egyptian government would allow one of its government employees to keep findings from one of its official digs.
“That runs counter to everything I would expect,” says Robert Ritner, a professor at the Oriental Institute, an Egyptology research center at the University of Chicago. “If it left Egypt that early, it probably left improperly. Any excavator for the Egyptian government is under obligation to provide that material back to Egypt — even in the '50s. It isn't his personal loot that he can then take out himself.”*
“It never happens,” seconds University of Virginia art-history professor Malcolm Bell, who is also vice president for professional responsibilities at the Archaeological Institute of America. “It sounds like the sort of thing you could say if you didn't really know the circumstances and you were trying either explain or invent. But it's not the sort of thing that happens.”*
Another theory for the provenance of Ka-Nefer-Nefer's mask has come from the infamous Dutch art smuggler turned watchdog (though self-serving in that role), Michel van Rijn. He asserts that it was stolen, along with a number of other artifacts, when the Sekhemkhet storage facility at Saqqara was robbed in the 1980's. Rijn cites a letter from Maarten Raven, Egyptian Curator for the National Museum of Antiquities in the Netherlands, who said that he'd seen a number of artifacts from that storage facility on the Dutch market throughout the 1990's.
Though Rijn's reputation prevents an eagerness to believe him, the explanation he provided on his website was accepted by Hany Hanna, General Director of Conservation for Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. In his open letter to the International Council of Museums he stated, “A mummy mask of Ka Nefer Nefer, published by Goneim in 1957, has been looted in the late '80s from the Saqqara Storeroom and sold in 1998 by Ali Aboutaam to the St. Louis Art Museum.”
Since his first claim in 2006, Hawass has written a number of letters to Brent Benjamin, Director of the St. Louis Art Museum, as well as the museum's board of directors, St. Louis Congressman William Lacy Clay, the FBI, the State Department, and Interpol. So far authorities are hesitant to get involved in the matter, and the museum is standing my its account of the provenance.
“The mask's provenance sounds like the stuff we used to use,” explains Hoving. “It was kind of a joke. Everybody went nudge-nudge, wink-wink. You know: 'Oh, yeah, right, “the anonymous Swiss collector.” That's good.' It was kind of a joke. Now it's no longer a joke. This is the kind of provenance that, personally, I wouldn't have anything to do with.”
From the start the St. Louis Art Museum has stood by its provenance. "I think for 1998, the year that this mask was acquired, the level of diligence that was done here is exemplary," says Brent Benjamin. "We had an inquiry hand-delivered to the Cairo Museum's director, Mohammed Saleh, saying that this was an object that had been offered to the museum for acquisition, and did he know any reason why the museum should not do that. We got a written response from Dr. Saleh that raised no concerns about the acquisition."
The only issue with this letter was the minimal amount of detail given to Dr. Saleh to determine the status of this artifact, describing it only as “a mummy mask of the 19th dynasty ... with a reddish copper-like face probably owing to the oxidation of the gold surface.”
At present, Egyptian authorities are piling through records from the Saqqara to prove that the mask was stored there, a detail which would disprove the museum's version of the provenance. It remains to be seen if the Mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer's inclusion on Egypt's wish-list of stolen antiquities, and the increased pressure resulting from the international conference, will make a difference.