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Museum Sues USA|Over Mummy Mask

ST. LOUIS (CN) - The St. Louis Art Museum sued the United States in a fight over the ancient Egyptian mummy Mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer. The museum claims it is the rightful owner of the mask, and wants the Department of Homeland Security Secretary and U.S. the Attorney General enjoined from seizing it.

The United States claims the mask was stolen.

The mask was found in 1952 and the museum bought it in 1998. Ka-Nefer-Nefer was a noblewoman from Egypt's 19th dynasty (ca. 1298 - 1187 B.C.). Her mask is of painted and gilded plaster-coated linen over wood.

The museum claims it launched a "months long" investigation of the mask's origins and found no evidence that it was stolen - it claims that even Egyptian law is on its side.

"The museum conducted a thorough investigation of the mask's provenance before purchasing the mask," the complaint states. "The museum's investigation revealed no evidence that the mask was owned by Egypt under applicable Egyptian law at the time of excavation, that the mask was stolen from Egypt, or that the mask had unlawfully entered the United States.

"Egyptian Law No. 215 on the Protection of Antiquities, the law applicable at the time the mask was discovered and excavated, allowed for personal and private ownership of Egyptian antiquities, provided that antiquities could be sold or gifted and, as such, did not establish ownership of the mask by Egypt.

"The United States government cannot show probable cause the mask was 'stolen, smuggled, or clandestinely imported or introduced' into the United States. Accordingly, the United States lacks an evidentiary basis for asserting the mask was stolen pursuant to Egyptian Law No. 215, or seizing and/or causing the forfeiture of the Mask pursuant to 19 U.S.C. § 1595a."

Even if the mask was stolen, the museum says, the Tariff Act of 1930's 5-year statute of limitations has expired.

"As early as December 31, 2005 ... the United States government had actual or constructive knowledge the mask was allegedly stolen. ... As such, the United States government possessed, more than five years ago, either constructive or actual knowledge sufficient to discover the alleged theft of the Mask from Egypt," the complaint states. "Pursuant to 19 U.S.C. § 1621, the United States government is time-barred from proceeding against the Museum under the Tariff Act."

The museum is represented by Jeffrey Simon with Husch Blackwell in Kansas City, Mo.

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