ST. LOUIS: The Supreme Council of Antiquities has given the Saint Louis Art Museum a May 15 deadline to turn over an ancient burial mask that they believe was taken out of the country illegally.
Officials with the museum are evaluating documents from the council that seek to prove the mask, dated from between 1307-1196 BC, could have been stolen from an Egyptian Museum storage room.
Saint Louis Art Museum Director Brent Benjamin would not say if the museum planned to meet the deadline.
We don t feel like we ve seen everything yet, Benjamin said. It s premature to speculate what the outcome will be. We are looking at documentation and we are still awaiting other materials from Egypt.
Egypt s antiquities council first made the claim in late February that the mask could have been stolen in the 1980s when an Egyptian Museum storage room was looted in Cairo.
Zahi Hawass, Egypt s antiquities chief, said he has grown inpatient with the St. Louis museum and will turn the matter over to law enforcement or the legal system if the museum does not act soon.
I have sent them all the proof they need, Hawass said. I don t understand why they insist on fighting this.
Hawass said under no circumstances could the mask have reached the U.S. legally because it belonged to the Egyptian Museum and there is no indication that the museum ever sold it.
The museum bought the mask from an art dealer in the U.S. in 1998 for about $500,000, only after checking with authorities and the international Art Loss Register to see if the item was stolen. The Museum also approved the purchase with the Egyptian Museum, Benjamin said.
The burial cover made of wood and plaster with glass eyes was excavated from a pyramid in 1952 in Saqqara, Egypt. Hawass said because of poor record-keeping practices, it was documented only once in 1959.
Benjamin said so far, he believes his museum did everything it could to obtain the mask legally and in good faith. He said that the museum has a money-back guarantee with the dealer if the mask has to be returned to Egypt.
The Saint Louis Art Museum s strongest piece of evidence that the item was not stolen is a letter from a Swiss collector included in the mask s provenance, an account of the item s history. The collector is said to have bought the mask in the early 1960s and kept it for more than 30 years until selling it to art dealers in America in the 1990s. Benjamin said that collector has asked to remain anonymous.
Hawass said he did not trust one of the dealers involved in the sale of the mask to the St. Louis museum. He said that dealer has been charged in the past with smuggling antiquities and violating U.S. customs laws.
This case is one of several where source countries are trying to reclaim cultural objects that they believe inappropriately left their country, according to Sharon Flescher, director of the International Foundation for Art Research.
The art world in general is grappling with how to respond to these types of claims in an ethical and responsible manner, Flescher said. AP