ST. LOUIS (CN) - The St. Louis Art Museum will get to keep a painted mask of an ancient Egyptian noblewoman that was the center of a 3-year legal battle between the museum and the United States government.
"The Department of Justice will take no further legal action with respect to the mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer," U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan said Monday, the deadline for the Department of Justice if it wished to prolong the court battle.
The Museum in February 2011 sought injunctive relief
prohibiting the feds from seizing the mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer.
The mask was found in 1952 and is 3,200 years old. Ka-Nefer-Nefer was a noblewoman from Egypt's 19th dynasty (ca. 1298 - 1187 B.C.). Her mask is painted and gilded plaster-coated linen over wood.
The museum claimed it bought the mask in 1998 after a "months long" investigation into its origins.
The feds claimed the mask was stolen.
The mask allegedly disappeared from Egyptian storage between 1966 and 1973. The museum claimed that there was no evidence that the mask was owned by Egypt or had been stolen from Egypt. Even if it were stolen, the museum claimed, the Tariff Act of 1930's 5-year statute of limitations had expired.
U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey found in favor
of the museum on March 31, 2012. In a tersely written opinion, 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 government appealed, but on June 12, a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit of Appeals upheld Autrey's decision. Monday was the final day the feds could ask for a rehearing from the 8th Circuit.