CAIRO, Egypt — More than half a century ago, a prominent Egyptian archaeologist unearthed a stunning ancient mummy mask at the Saqqara pyramids near Cairo — the golden image of a noblewoman's face.
Mohammed Zakaria Ghoneim deposited the 3,200-year-old relic in a warehouse at Saqqara, where he meticulously documented his discovery. Seven years later, in 1959, Egyptian records show it was still in the same storeroom.
What happened to the burial mask of Ka Nefer Nefer in the four decades that followed is a mystery.
It resurfaced in 1998 when the St. Louis Art Museum acquired it. And now it is at the center of one of the most acrimonious fights in the antiquities world.
The case lays bare the complexities involved in growing efforts by Egypt and other countries to reclaim artifacts stolen or looted from their ancient civilizations.
Local and international laws are often inadequate or nonexistent. The process requires delicate cooperation among government, law enforcement, museums and antiquities dealers. And frequently, there are gaps in the historical records.
Claims are attracting increasing attention after prestigious institutions such as the J. Paul Getty Museum of Art in Los Angeles and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York agreed to return looted or stolen artwork or antiquities. Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt's antiquities authority, said his country has recovered some 5,000 stolen artifacts since 2002 and is pursuing dozens more.
"This is the No. 1 case," he said. "Egypt has a right to the mask."
Hawass said there is no record showing the mask ever left Egypt legally. But the St. Louis museum contends Egypt has not proven it was stolen.
"That is a charge we took very seriously," museum director Brent Benjamin said. "If that is true, there is no question that the museum would return the object," he said.
"To date, we have not seen information that we believe is compelling enough to return the object."
After a recent request from Hawass, who does not shy away from using political pressure to get what he wants, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is looking into the case.
Egyptian records seen the burial cover for Ka Nefer Nefer's mummy was discovered in 1952 by Ghoneim, who oversaw excavations at the Saqqara pyramids, about 12 miles south of the more famous Great Pyramids of Giza.
The sprawling necropolis of Saqqara is the burial site of the rulers of ancient Memphis, the capital of Egypt's Old Kingdom. Ghoneim found the mask in a burial site behind the unfinished Step Pyramid of King Sekhemkhef. The funerary cover was inside, dating from 1307-1196 B.C.
Ka Nefer Nefer's golden burial mask was testimony to her position in the court of Pharaoh Ramses II. Her eyes are made of glass, which was as valuable as gemstones at the time. In each hand she holds a wooden amulet, a symbol of strength and status. Her arms bear a relief showing her ascent into the afterlife on the boat of Osiris, Egyptian god of the underworld.
Ghoneim registered his find in the official ledger at the government warehouse, or magazine, at Saqqara. The page in the ledger book, a key document Egypt has presented to St. Louis to stake its claim, shows a high-quality photograph of the mask, the finder's name and ID number, and a detailed description.
In 1957, Ghoneim published his discovery in a book showing him and the mask at the site, which Egyptologists view as important evidence for Egypt's claim. A second record from Saqqara given to St. Louis showed the artifact was packed in a box with other antiquities in 1959 for a shipment to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Around that time, Egypt was beginning to exhibit its antiquities abroad, and the mask was considered important enough for a show planned for Japan. But Egypt says the mask never made it there.
Because records were not kept or are lost, Egypt has not determined exactly when the mask went missing. Egyptian research concluded it was stolen in 1959, most likely from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo or en route to it from the Saqqara storeroom.
In 2006, Egypt made its first claim that the mask was stolen and asked the museum to return it. It has repeatedly renewed that demand, but it cannot show the theft was ever detected and never reported the item as stolen to the international Art Loss Registry.
The museum said it checked with the registry before buying the mask to see if it was listed as stolen. It was not listed.
St. Louis also sent a letter to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, saying it had acquired the mask and that, in its response, the Egyptian museum did not indicate the item was stolen. Egypt accuses St. Louis of falsifying the provenance, which documents the history of ownership of an artifact.
The museum's provenance puts the mask in the possession of a Belgium art dealer in 1952. However, Egypt can show that it was in the Saqqara storeroom in both 1952 and 1959, making it improbable it ever left there, especially to a foreign country, in the intervening years.
"It did not leave Egypt legally," said Hawass. "There would have been a record of this."
Benjamin acknowledged "there is certainly uncertainty about how it moved from person to person."
St. Louis claimed the mask left the country after it was "awarded" to Ghoneim as "partage" — a practice of dividing archaeological finds between the host country and the excavator — and appeared on the European art market shortly thereafter.
However, Hawass said partage was never practiced by Egyptian archaeologists, only with foreign excavation teams. He noted that Ghoneim had thanked the Egyptian government for allowing him to use photos of the mask, acknowledging the country's ownership.
"I think things are a bit cloudy," said Egyptologist Peter Lacovara, curator of ancient Egyptian art at the Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta. "It would be incumbent on St. Louis to prove that somehow it went from being excavated to St. Louis, that it went out of the country in a legitimate way."
Lacovara said the difficulty of monitoring Egypt's vast stores of artifacts explains how the mask could have disappeared for decades without anyone noticing, especially before the era of computers.
"It's a great masterpiece. It's really a tragedy it has been hidden away for so long," he said.
Another theory is that Ghoneim stole the mask, an idea Hawass dismisses out of hand as impossible given his stellar reputation. Ghoneim died in 1959.
The provenance contained at least one other red flag for the Egyptians.
St. Louis bought the mask in 1998 for half a million dollars from Phoenix Ancient Art gallery in Geneva, Switzerland. The gallery is owned by Lebanese brothers Hicham and Ali Aboutaam, two of the world's most powerful antiquities dealers.
In 2004, an Egyptian court sentenced Ali Aboutaam in absentia to 15 years in prison after he was accused of smuggling artifacts from Egypt to Switzerland. The charges against him were later dropped by the Egyptian court for lack of evidence.
The provenance lists the previous owner of the mask, before Phoenix Ancient Art, as an anonymous private collection in Switzerland. Phoenix Ancient Art acquired it in 1997-1998, according to the document.
Ali Aboutaam denies Egyptian allegations that the mask was smuggled out of Egypt.
"It is totally ridiculous," he said. "I have been dealing in antiquities for the last 30 years and I never smuggled any piece out of Egypt."
Phoenix Ancient Art gave the museum a money-back guarantee for the full purchase-price of the mask in case it had to be returned to Egypt. Aboutaam said this was standard practice with all such sales.
For Hawass, the fight is personal.
"This stupid man," he calls Benjamin, "he doesn't understand the rules here."
Hawass has written numerous letters to Benjamin, his board of directors, St. Louis Congressman William Lacy Clay, the FBI and Interpol. The law enforcement agencies declined to get involved. Hawass even urged the children of St. Louis to boycott the museum.
Hawass said authorities are still sifting through a trove of records in the Egyptian Museum and more documents could emerge to shed light on the case.
Also, a new Egyptian law, expected to be passed by the end of this year, will make antiquities theft a crime.
"Our new law will give us the power to take people to court in Egypt," Hawass said. "(Benjamin) will be wanted in Egypt."