ST. LOUIS (CN) - The St. Louis Art Museum can keep the 3,200-year-old Egyptian mummy mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer, despite the U.S. government's "bold assertion" that it was stolen from Egypt, a federal judge ruled.
The Egyptian government claimed the mask was stolen sometime between 1966 and 1973.
The U.S. government filed a forfeiture complaint against the museum, seeking possession of the mask to return it to Egypt.
The museum has had the mask since 1998, when it bought it from a New York art dealer for $499,000.
In a tersely written opinion, U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey found that the government failed to prove its case.
"The verified complaint does not provide a factual statement of theft, smuggling, or clandestine importation," Autrey wrote. "Rather, the complaint merely states that the mask was found to be 'missing' from Egypt in 1973. Although the government alleges, in a conclusory fashion, that 'the register did not document that the Mask was sold or given to a private party during the time frame of 1966 to 1973,' the complaint is completely devoid of any facts showing that the mask was 'missing' because it was stolen and then smuggled out of the country. The closest the government comes to any type of allegation of theft or smuggling is in paragraphs 19 and 20 of the complaint, which note that in 2006 'the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities became aware that the mask was accessioned by the Saint Louis Art Museum ... and [t]o date, the Saint Louis Art Museum has refused to return the Mask.' The government's legal conclusion, in paragraph 22 of the verified complaint, that '[b]ecause the Mask was stolen, it could not have been lawfully exported from Egypt or lawfully imported into the United States,' misses a number of factual and logical steps, namely: (1) an assertion that the mask was actually stolen; (2) factual circumstances relating to when the government believes the mask was stolen and why; (3) facts relating to the location from which the mask was stolen; (4) facts regarding who the government believes stole the mask; and (5) a statement or identification of the law which the government believes applies under which the mask would be considered stolen and/or illegally exported.
"The government cannot simply rest on its laurels and believe that it can initiate a civil forfeiture proceeding on the basis of one bold assertion that because something went missing from one party in 1973 and turned up with another party in 1998, it was therefore stolen and/or imported or exported illegally. The government is required under the pleading standards set forth in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to provide specific facts, or plead 'with such particularity,' that the claimant will be able, without moving for a more definite statement, to commence an investigation of the facts and to frame a responsive pleading."
The museum claims it thoroughly researched the mask's history before buying it. That research showed that the mask was part of a private collection in the 1960s, before it was bought by a Croatian collector, who sold the mask to Phoenix Ancient Art in 1995.
U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that his office still plans to argue the case. Whether that will be through further pleadings or an appeal has yet to be determined.
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