ST. LOUIS (AP) - The St. Louis Art Museum is going to court to try to keep a 3,200-year-old mummy mask that Egypt wants returned, claiming it was stolen nearly two decades ago.
In a lawsuit filed in federal court in St. Louis on Tuesday, the museum is seeking a judgment to prevent the U.S. government from seizing the 20-inch-long funeral mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer and returning it to Egypt. The museum claims it legally purchased the mask, that there was no evidence the mask was ever stolen, and that the statute of limitation has expired for any seizure under the Tariff Act of 1930.
Museum attorney David Linenbroker said Wednesday that the lawsuit was filed after a Jan. 13 meeting in which federal prosecutors made it clear they intended to begin proceedings to seize the mask and return it to Egypt.
"The museum has been on record that if there was ever any credible information that indicated that this mask was not properly owned by the museum, we'd certainly look at that," Linenbroker said. "We don't want to possess a stolen mask. But we have not been presented anything at this point that is credible information."
The lawsuit names U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan of St. Louis and Attorney General Eric Holder because the Justice Department represents the U.S. government in affairs related to the Tariff Act. It names Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano because her department oversees customs enforcement.
Callahan said Wednesday the dispute has been going on for some time.
"There have been discussions had by the parties, I think in good faith," he said in a telephone interview. "But in the last analysis, I think this dispute is probably headed where it needs to go, and that is into the court system."
A representative for the Department of Homeland Security did not return a message seeking comment.
Ka-Nefer-Nefer, an Egyptian noblewoman, lived in the 19th dynasty, about 3,200 years ago. The mask is made of painted and gilded plaster-coated linen over wood. It is inlaid with glass for the eyes.
It was excavated from one of the Saqqara pyramids, about 16 miles south of Cairo, in 1952. The art museum paid $499,000 in purchasing it from a New York art dealer in 1998. The mask has been on display at the museum in Forest Park since then.
But in late 2005, Egyptian antiquities officials began demanding the return of the mask, claiming it was stolen from a storage room near the pyramid in the early 1990s. Zahi Hawass, secretary general for Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, said that under no circumstances could the mask have reached the U.S. legally because it belonged to the Egyptian Museum and there was no indication that the museum ever sold it.
The St. Louis museum's lawsuit said that before buying the mask, the museum checked with various authorities and the international Art Loss Register to see if the item was stolen. It said it also obtained approval from the Egyptian Museum.
"The museum's investigation revealed no evidence that the mask was owned by Egypt under applicable Egyptian law at the time of excavation, that the mask was stolen from Egypt, or that the mask had unlawfully entered the United States," the lawsuit states.
In the lawsuit, the museum also claims the Tariff Act requires that smuggled or stolen property be seized within five years of the theft, or two years after the theft was discovered.
The museum has said previously that it has a money-back guarantee with the dealer, if the mask has to be returned to Egypt. A spokeswoman for the museum declined to comment on Wednesday.