US v. Mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer is a case dealing with an Egyptian mask which may or may not have been sold or stolen sometime after it was excavated during a state-sponsored dig in the early 1950s, registered to the Egyptian Antiquities Service and shipped to Cairo for restoration in 1966. It went missing in 1973 and was purchased by an American museum in St. Louis in 1998. The museum challenged a forfeiture claim and seemed to have won on its motion because the court found that the claim was “devoid of any facts showing that the Mask was ‘missing’ because it was stolen and then smuggled out of the country.” Judge Henry E. Autrey, who signed the opinion, must be an Egyptologist and a believer that sacred burial objects have mystical powers to disappear without human intervention and show up in dealers’ shops out of thin air.
According to Patty Gerstenblith, director of Center for Art, Museum & Cultural Heritage Law at DePaul University “This is the first time [she has] seen a public institution like a museum deciding to expend its funds to proactively sue the government.” Prof. Gerstenblith wrote one of the leading textbooks on cultural heritage law, so if she says it is the first, we should listen. The decision is surely the first to look at the lack of paper trail to say that the object which is located away from the place where it ought to be should stay where it landed.