Loot or legit? Artifact sets off fuss

Provenance of St. Louis museum antiquity called into question

Egypt 2006

By Darryl Levings

June 10, 2009

CAIRO, Egypt – The smile of Ka Nefer Nefer is thin, intimate, knowing, a little like the Mona Lisa’s.

The unknown artist who shaped Nefer’s funerary mask about 3,200 years ago had a deft touch.

His mask of the lady Nefer is a minor masterpiece — which is why it has caused an international art squabble, one of many shaking display cases of museums around the world.

One of those cases is in the St. Louis Art Museum, located between two mummies on the first floor. It is where the memory of Nefer lives on.

But Zahi Hawass, the stocky Egyptian version of Indiana Jones — complete with trademark hat — wants her to come home. Now.

Hawass, whose formal title is secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, gave the museum a deadline to return the piece. If not, he threatened early this month, he would make life “hell” for St. Louis Art Museum Director Brent Benjamin.

Benjamin called his bluff last week. “It is unfortunate that Dr. Hawass has chosen to issue false and misleading statements that directly attack the integrity of the Saint Louis Art Museum and its trustees, rather than sharing with the art museum documents that might support his claim, as the museum has requested,” Benjamin said. Until then, he suggested, the attacks should stop.

The deadline passed Monday. On Tuesday, The Associated Press in Cairo reported, Hawass asked Egyptian attorneys to sue the museum.

Questionable art acquisitions have been in the news recently. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art was pressured to return a large Greek vase to Italy, where it had been excavated. Italian authorities also brought a case against the J. Paul Getty Museum’s curator of antiquities.

Jennifer Stoffel, spokeswoman for the St. Louis Art Museum, said it was not fair to lump the Nefer mask controversy in with other fights over antiquities. “Not only are their histories unique,” she said, “but the histories of their ownership are also unique.

“Our director has often said that if it’s a stolen object, we cannot keep it here. But we don’t have enough evidence to make that decision.”

As arguably the oldest treasure house of art and antiquities, Egypt has suffered more than most. The Romans carried off huge obelisks in their galleys. The Muslims invaded. Napoleon showed up, quickly followed by the British. Through the early 20th century, European fortune hunters dug for tombs and prowled the black market, all looking for the “wonderful things,” as Howard Carter put it as he peeked through a hole at Tutankhamen’s accoutrements.

Many argue that Egypt’s history is too huge and intertwined with our collective past to rest in one place, and Hawass agrees.

“I’m not asking for everything to come back. Just a few unique items,” he recently told editors on a fellowship from the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

“I’m asking museums not to buy any stolen artifacts. And if they’re bought, I’m asking them to send them back.”

More waiting below

Egypt has hardly been stripped bare. Hawass and others estimate that 70 percent of Egypt’s antiquities are still underground. “You can see that what’s below ground is more than what’s above,” he said. “All over Egypt are towns built on antiquities.”

Some of the old digging grounds are revealing new secrets as well. An excavation in the Valley of the Kings, only yards away from Tut’s tomb, shows surprises still lurk. And at Giza, Hawass has found two tombs, one near the third pyramid and one not far from the Sphinx. Both are still unopened.

But Hawass is also mining the law and publicity.

He has the aplomb of a regular on the Discovery or History cable channels, which he is. Farouk El-Baz, the Egyptian-American director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University, described him in The New York Times as a “media whore,” and then added there was nothing wrong with that.

El-Baz, who has worked with Hawass for years, said Hawass had changed the face of archaeology in Egypt by making it approachable to the common people, not just scholars.

It was Hawass who was filmed when Tut got his CT scan, (pictures of that, along with newspaper profiles of him are available on his Web site), who escorted the latest Tut show to Los Angeles and is busy striking more lucrative deals on such tours to pay for his big plans back home.

He has a five-point program: educating Egyptians about their heritage, opening new state-of-the-art museums, protecting sites from encroaching development (badly needed at Giza), pushing for stiffer penalties for illegal selling of ancient pieces (3,000 objects reportedly have been recovered and two international smuggling rings broken) and the return of several crucial items.

One is the Rosetta Stone. The stone, which was the key to cracking hieroglyphic writing, now resides in the British Museum not far from the Parthenon’s Elgin Marbles, another source of international rancor.

Other goals include the famous bust of Nefertiti in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin; the Zodiac from Dendera Temple in the Louvre in Paris; a statue of Hemiunnu the pyramid architect in the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany; and Ankhhaf’s bust in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Hawass also claimed that the obelisk in Central Park, known as Cleopatra’s Needle, is neglected. He says he has written New York’s mayor that it should be returned if not better treated.

When Hawass talks, people put down their shovels and listen.

“He rules Egyptology with an iron fist and censorious tongue,” The Sunday Times Magazine in London once wrote of him. “Nobody crosses Zahi Hawass and gets away with it.” Ask the prominent European Egyptologists who angered him and are now banned from further explorations.

“Before I respond,” Hawass told the Al-Ahram Weekly, “people have to understand that I am an Egyptian and all my efforts are in the service of Egyptian antiquities, not America, France or Germany.”

Hawass says he’s just putting teeth into the protection of Egypt’s heritage, trying to bring order to the many studies and digs going on under his eye.

“I feel like this is a battle I have to fight,” Hawass said.

A woman much desired

Who was Ka Nefer Nefer? Not just any woman, clearly, perhaps the wife of a noble. Her smile is wood and plaster, the twinkle in her eyes, inlaid glass.

She lived in the 19th Dynasty. Her mask came from a Saqqara necropolis near the Step Pyramid, about 16 miles south of Cairo.

Found in 1952, the mask was documented only once, in 1959. Recordkeeping was notoriously poor then, and the Egyptian Museum’s storerooms overflowed.

Hawass said he suspected the mask was stolen in the 1980s in the looting of one room. Because of the lack of records that the museum ever sold it, he insists it could have never have reached the United States legally.

Stoffel said that when the St. Louis Art Museum paid $499,000 to a Swiss dealer in 1998, “We didn’t just take the dealer’s documentation, but went further and checked with Interpol to see if it was ever listed as lost or stolen.” The museum also contacted the Egyptian Museum and got its approval.

Benjamin said the mask had been given to Egyptologist Zakariya Ghoneim, who got it as part of a division of finds at Saqqara.

The St. Louis museum’s records indicate the mask had been auctioned in Brussels, Belgium, in 1952, backing its claim. Others think that was a different mask. Hawass insists that giving the mask to Ghoneim violated Egyptian law. Also, the director of the Egyptian Museum at the time denied giving the St. Louis museum any approval, he said.

A foreign archaeologist may have tipped off the supreme council that the lost mask was on display in St. Louis.

The art museum got its first inkling in December, Stoffel said, from “wild and unsubstantiated allegations” about the provenance of the mask raised by a Web site.

The museums began communicating in February. Stoffel said Hawass referred to documents that the Egyptians had, but they were not provided. Nor was there any hint of a May 15 deadline to return the mask.

Now Hawass says Egypt has involved Interpol, called for U.S. State Department help, stopped all cooperation with the St. Louis museum and has called on all schools in St. Louis to boycott the museum.

“Egypt is in the hearts of all kids,” he told the visiting editors in a cramped office near the Great Pyramid. “Tell American children: This is stolen from Egypt. Are they going to be proud of this?”