What happens to ancient artifacts when they leave their home countries and embark on unauthorized journeys throughout the rest of the world? This is the circumstance surrounding the case of the golden burial mask of Ka Nefer Nefer, which was uncovered in Saqqara in 1952 by an archaeologist named Mohammed Zakaria Ghoneim. How did it wind up at the St. Louis Art Museum? That is what Zahi Hawass (head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities) wants to know and it’s his primary objective.
There is no known record tracking the transition from Egypt to St Louis. This means that the burial mask was smuggled or transported illegally. In 1998, the museum purchased the mask from an art gallery located in Switzerland, but Egypt wants it returned to its native country. And so the fight begins.
It’s been more than 50 years since a well-known Egyptian archaeologist discovered one of the most striking ancient mummy masks residing at the Saqqara pyramids (near Cairo). Why is it so important? It bears the image of a noblewoman , her face. The artifact is believed to have been 3,200 years old and Ghoneim placed it in a warehouse positioned at Saqqara. He then went on to document his find with great detail. Seven years had passed and Egyptian records stated that the relic was still in their possession.
No one knows for sure the journey that the mask has traveled, but what they do know is that it is no longer in Egypt and now dwells in a museum in the United States. The mask emerged into public knowledge in 1998 when the St. Louis Art Museum gained ownership. What is to become of the mask? Who should get to keep it? These are pressing questions, where answers could change the foundation of the antiquities world. It has been well documented that looting of ancient civilization sites and stolen artifacts are a very real problem in archeology. Many countries besides Egypt are trying to reclaim their lost relics.
Usually, the laws on a local and international level do not offer much help. The process of handling such cases juggles the cooperation of law enforcement, the government, museums, and dealers of antiquities. What’s worse is that tracing back artifacts by using historical records makes matters worse in some cases because they are often incomplete and inconsistent.
The number of claims has risen in the past years, as prominent museums, such as J. Paul Getty Museum of Art in Los Angeles and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have made promises to return stolen artwork and looted artifacts. The efforts of countries trying to bring home their ancient past is paying off. Since 2002, Egypt was lucky enough to recover about 5,000 artifacts that had been stolen over time. However, getting the gold mask back has become Egypt’s number 1 priority.