St Louis Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask


In 1998 the St Louis Art Museum bought the funerary mask of the Egyptian noblewoman Ka-Nefer-Nefer from Phoenix Ancient Art of New York and Geneva (proprietors Hicham and Ali Aboutaam). The 19th dynasty mask (1307-1196 BC) is made of painted and gilded plaster-coated linen over wood (Kaufman 2006a).
Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask
(Photo: St Louis Museum)
The provenance supplied by Phoenix Ancient Art to St Louis stated that the mask had been excavated at Saqqara in 1951-52 and had been on the art market by 1952. In 2006, Ton Cremers of Museum Security Net questioned this provenance, and suggested instead that the mask had been stolen from storage at Saqqara some time after 1985. The secretary-general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities Zahi Hawass asked that the mask be returned to Egypt. He produced documentation to show that it had been registered as the property of the Egyptian government by 1953, and that in 1959 it had been transported from storage in Saqqara to Cairo for display in the Egyptian Museum. Unfortunately, there is no documentation to show that the mask ever arrived in Cairo, and the assumption is that it must have been stolen sometime after 1959. Nevertheless, this would have been seven years after the mask is alleged to have been on the European antiquities market. In May 2006, Brent Benjamin, the St Louis director, rejected the Egyptian claim, stating that before acquisition the museum had contacted the Art Loss Register, Interpol and the Egyptian Museum about the piece, but received nothing in return to suggest that the mask was stolen (Kaufman 2006b).
Egyptian register entry
Image: SCA
The mask features on the front cover of a teacher’s guide prepared by the museum as part of a larger educational package designed to support the museum’s Egyptological collection. The guide prompts a number of interesting questions about the collection, including one associated with the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask that asks about the propriety of exhibiting tomb objects in a museum. Unfortunately, the guide does not address the issue of museum acquisitions, nor does it consider the legitimacy of the acquisition of the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask.
Kaufman, Jason E. 2006a. “This mask belongs to Egypt”, Art Newspaper no 167, March, 4.
Kaufman, Jason E. 2006b. “’This mask is ours’ says St Louis Art Museum”, Art Newspaper no 170, June, 5.