Out of Egypt

From a long-buried pyramid to the Saint Louis Art Museum: The mysterious voyage of the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask.

Feb 15, 2006 at 4:00 am
It was near the end of September 1951 when a young archaeologist named Mohammed Zakaria Goneim noticed a small outcropping of masonry along a terrace at Saqqara, the sprawling necropolis twenty miles south of Cairo, Egypt.

Goneim had arrived six months earlier to assume his duties as Saqqara's chief inspector of antiquities, a government post. Dark-skinned and dapper, the bespectacled antiquarian wore his black hair cut short. His high forehead was often crowned by a wide-brimmed pith helmet, and he was rarely without a pair of round sunglasses to protect his eyes from the harsh desert sun.

Trained at the University of Cairo, the 39-year-old Goneim (pronounced goo-neem) was part of Egypt's new breed of native-born archaeologists. He'd held similar positions in Upper Egypt and at the Theban Necropolis on the west bank of the Nile, but it was in Saqqara that the young Egyptologist resolved to make a name for himself, joining the likes of Howard Carter and William Petrie in the pantheon of modern archaeology.

"It was true that Saqqara had been dug many many times," Goneim would write in The Buried Pyramid, his 1956 account of the excavation. "I was the latest in a long line of archaeologists who worked at Saqqara, and I would not have been human if I had not hoped that to me would be granted the opportunity of making further discoveries."

The pockmarked swath of land bounded by the Western Desert to the west and the ancient capital of Memphis to the east had served for millennia as the graveyard to the Egyptian pharaohs. Topping the region's list of archaeological jewels is the Step Pyramid of Djoser, which dates to the Third Dynasty (2686-2613 B.C.) and is widely regarded as Egypt's oldest pyramid.

"I had been puzzled by the fact that although the Third Dynasty was one of the most important in Egyptian history — the time when Egypt had become a unified kingdom ruled from Memphis — little was known of any of the [other] Third Dynasty kings," Goneim writes. "Could it be, I wondered, that the memory of this great monarch had eclipsed that of his successors in the same way as his pyramid overshadowed the other, lesser monuments in the area?"

With these thoughts in mind, Goneim assembled a crew "from the peasant class" and began to excavate just east of the Djoser pyramid. It was a dig that would come to define his life.

"To our delight, on the first day a massive wall of rubble-coursed masonry appeared," Goneim would write. The excavation crew quickly assembled a narrow-gauge railway, or decauville, to cart away sand and rock. Unearthed, the wall proved to be a buttressing device for a structure that had been built on a depression in the desert floor. Goneim soon concluded he was excavating a site "several times the size of Trafalgar Square in London."

Unlike the smooth-sided pyramids of later dynasties, Djoser's is built of smaller stone blocks that incline toward a central core of rubble. As Goneim's excavation progressed, the new site's structural similarity to Djoser led the archaeologist to believe he might have uncovered the "buried" pyramid of a hitherto-unknown pharaoh of the Third Dynasty.

His conviction was confirmed on New Year's Day 1952. "We suddenly found a flight of steps leading to an enormous cross-wall," Goneim recounts in The Buried Pyramid. "As it gradually revealed itself in all its beauty, exactly as the workmen had left it nearly five thousand years ago, I realized that here was a find of major importance."

Fueling his excitement were the scores of more recent burials his crew had encountered atop the pyramid's core, the earliest of which dated from the Nineteenth Dynasty (1293-1185 B.C.).

"I was able to satisfy myself that the monument had been undisturbed for at least 3,000 years," Goneim writes. "Proof of this lay in the large number of later burials which my workmen found...lying undisturbed above the pyramid itself[;] it is obvious that the wall we had uncovered had not been seen by human eyes since that remote epoch."

Armed with this information, Goneim announced to the world that he might have uncovered the untouched tomb of a previously unknown pharaoh named Sekhemkhet — potentially the most significant find since Howard Carter unearthed the virgin tomb of Tutankhamen 30 years before.

Among the many burials Goneim discovered atop the pyramid, one in particular caught his eye: the unmummified body of a woman, wrapped in a simple reed mat. Her remains, which dated to the Nineteenth Dynasty, were badly decomposed, but she wore an elaborate mask over her head and shoulders. Her face, covered by a thin sheet of blended copper and gold, peeked from beneath an intricate resin wig molded into plaits. The diadem that crowned her head was made of glass, as were her eyes and nipples. In each hand she held an amulet symbolizing strength and welfare; etched across her folded arms was a scene depicting the encounter between Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead, and the woman's spiritual double in the afterlife, known as her ka.

Goneim dubbed the woman Ka-Nefer-Nefer: the Twice-Beautiful Ka.

So taken was Goneim with Ka-Nefer-Nefer (pronounced caw nef-er nef-er) that he would publish photographs of the mask in three subsequent books about the excavation. But amid the excitement of the dig in 1952, her fate was obscured. She would disappear from public view for nearly 50 years.

More precisely, until 1998, when the Saint Louis Art Museum purchased the mask for a half-million dollars from Phoenix Ancient Art, an antiquities dealership owned by the Lebanese brothers Hicham and Ali Aboutaam.

Today the artifact resides in a climate-controlled case marked with the unassuming label: "Mummy Mask, Egyptian, Dynasty 19."

But while the story of Ka-Nefer-Nefer's discovery is well known, her flight out of Egypt remains a mystery.

As is typical when artworks or antiquities change hands, the sale of the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask was accompanied by a provenance, a document that attempts to trace an object's chain of ownership back to its creation or excavation.

Provenance research is an inherently murky field, and often no clear progression of ownership can be established. Many items, some several millennia old, came out of the ground centuries ago and passed into private collections, with no publicity or documentation. It's not unusual for such pieces to appear on the market with little or no known history.

"You can go online to Christie's or Sotheby's even — the most reputable auction houses — and look at their antiquities catalogs," says Patty Gerstenblith, director of the cultural heritage law program at the DePaul University College of Law in Chicago. "You'll see how many times they'll tell you provenance info: 'Property of a Swiss gentleman'; or 'Property of a European lady.' It's not good provenance, but it is a provenance."

Further complicating contemporary provenance research is the glut of looted antiquities on the market. The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that the stolen art market is worth $6 billion, and though antiquities trafficking represents only a portion of that figure, many of those familiar with the trade maintain that illegally excavated objects — laundered via false provenances — are its lifeblood.

Ka-Nefer-Nefer's provenance was vague. According to documents the seller supplied to the St. Louis museum, the mask was seen in 1952 at an antiquities dealer in Brussels, Belgium. Roughly ten years later, the provenance says, the object was bought by a private collector and then sold to an unnamed Swiss citizen, in whose private collection it would remain for 40 years. In 1997 the mask was purchased for an undisclosed sum by Phoenix Ancient Art, which sold it one year later to the Saint Louis Art Museum for $499,000.

The provenance bases the mask's Belgium stopover on the eyewitness declaration of a Swiss man named Charly Mathez, who in 1997 attested that he'd seen the Ka-Nefer-Nefer at a Brussels gallery 45 years earlier.

"I confirm that I saw this Egyptian piece...in an important antiquities dealership in Brussels, Belgium in 1952," reads Mathez's handwritten declaration, dated February 11, 1997. The declaration, written in French, continues: "I remember this date very well because I often traveled to Belgium on business during this time, and this piece interested one of my clients."

After buying the mask, Saint Louis Art Museum officials contacted Mathez in the hope that he might provide additional information that would bolster the provenance. "It's been a long time," Mathez replied in a letter dated October 5, 1999, conceding that he could not recall the name of the Brussels gallery and apologizing that he could be of no further assistance.

"He is a person who told us that he was in Brussels on business quite a lot in the 1950s. That's what we know," says Benjamin. "But we do have an address for him, and he wrote back to us directly."

How had Phoenix Ancient Art known to contact Mathez in the first place? "The relationship between the two? I don't know," says Benjamin, who came to the museum a year after the mask's purchase. "I'm not aware that that particular question was asked."

Hicham Aboutaam, who now runs Phoenix Ancient Art with his brother Ali, doesn't know either. "I really don't know [who Charly Mathez is]," Aboutaam says from his New York gallery. "I'd have to look at those documents. It's been, what, eight years now?"

Art museum officials also asked an antiquities expert to evaluate the provenance. The scholar, who is not named in the copy of the provenance the museum supplied to Riverfront Times, asserted that the documentation "suggests that the mask was never displayed with the other excavated objects [from Saqqara] and was probably awarded to the excavator himself. This would correspond with its appearance on the European art market soon after its excavation."

Riverfront Times obtained a copy of the statement, which was authored by Peter Lacovara, curator of ancient art for the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta. In a breezy correspondence dated October 8, 1999, eighteen months after the museum bought the mask, Lacovara writes, "That is good news about it being on the art market in '52. Egyptian nationals were allowed to keep a share of their finds, much as Europeans were given divisions."

But a number of Egyptologists and dealers familiar with the Ka-Nefer-Nefer and its provenance contend that in 1952 the Egyptian government would never have given the mask to Goneim — a government employee who was working on a government-sponsored dig — particularly in the midst of an ongoing excavation.

"That runs counter to everything I would expect," says Robert Ritner, a professor at the Oriental Institute, an Egyptology research center at the University of Chicago. "If it left Egypt that early, it probably left improperly. Any excavator for the Egyptian government is under obligation to provide that material back to Egypt — even in the '50s. It isn't his personal loot that he can then take out himself."

"It never happens," seconds University of Virginia art-history professor Malcolm Bell, who is also vice president for professional responsibilities at the Archaeological Institute of America. "It sounds like the sort of thing you could say if you didn't really know the circumstances and you were trying either explain or invent. But it's not the sort of thing that happens."

Reached via e-mail, Peter Lacovara repeats that the Egyptian government did in fact award artifacts to excavators on occasion. He adds, however, that he was skeptical of the Ka-Nefer-Nefer's provenance from the beginning.

"I urged [them] to check the provenance with the dealer as Goneim would be the only possible legitimate source for the mask coming onto the market," the Emory University curator writes. "I urged them again and again to contact the antiquities service to make sure the mask was not stolen."

Neither the Saint Louis Art Museum nor Phoenix Ancient Art has produced any documentation that the Egyptian government gave the mask to M. Zakaria Goneim. In fact, the archaeologist's own writings indicate that he did not own the mask: In the acknowledgements section of The Buried Pyramid, the author thanks the Department of Antiquities of the Egyptian Government, Cairo, "for permission to reproduce" two photographs of the mask.

According to the museum's provenance, the mask next surfaced in the "early 1960s" in the "Kaloterna Collection." The document provides no further information about the change in ownership other than to speculate in a footnote that "Kaloterna" might be a misspelling of "Kaliterna," a common Croatian surname.

The mask was soon resold, according to the provenance, this time to a "Private Collection, Switzerland." The transaction is said to have occurred in the "early 1960s."

The provenance contains no documentation of the purchase. Footnotes add that "[t]he Swiss collector requested anonymity," and that "[t]he Swiss collector's letter of July 2, 1997 confirms the sale of the mask to Aboutaam."

"The dealer did provide us with a letter to that effect from the individual who owned it that had requested anonymity," says Brent Benjamin. "The museum did verify the identity of that person. We know it's a real person. We know that person exists. We know the address. It's not a fictional person."

A copy of the letter obtained by the Riverfront Times identifies the Swiss collector as Zuzi Jelinek of 84 Quai de Cologny, Geneva, Switzerland.

The universe of high-dollar collectors is a rarefied one. Nonetheless, when a New York antiquities dealer ran the name "Jelinek" through his 18,000-name database of museums, collectors and dealers at Riverfront Times' request, the search came up negative.

According to Swiss telephone listings, a Suzana Jelinek-Ronkuline lives at 84 Quai de Cologny in Geneva. Her telephone number is identical to the one on the letter Phoenix Ancient Art provided to the St. Louis museum.

Reached by phone in Geneva, a man identifying himself as Jelinek's son, Ivo Jelinek, says his mother never owned the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask.

"This is completely false information. We have nothing to do with any mask, certainly not from the Nineteenth Dynasty," asserts Jelinek, who says he lives at the address listed on the letter. "She has never had interest or invested money in such [objects]."

Jelinek says his mother's name may be linked to the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask for another reason: the Aboutaam brothers, owners of Phoenix Ancient Art, rented another house she owns on Quai de Cologny. "They were tenants of Lebanese origin who rented one of our houses. They are merchants of perhaps of this type of objects — maybe this is the connection," says Jelinek. "They lived on [Quai de Cologny] at another number, but they left. They are not there any longer."

Presented with this information, Hicham Aboutaam directed the Riverfront Times to a woman identifying herself as Suzana Jelinek, of Zagreb, Croatia. "I bought the mask many many years ago, and I sold it many many years ago," says Suzana Jelinek when reached at her Zagreb home. "I have so many things in my collection that my children don't know what all I have."

"That's very peculiar," the University of Virginia's Bell says. "That's very suspicious. That's a very unconvincing sort of provenance that would not be acceptable anywhere."

Before purchasing the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask, museum officials in St. Louis checked it against stolen-art databases maintained by Interpol and the International Foundation for Art Research. The mask came back clean.

"I think for 1998, the year that this mask was acquired, the level of diligence that was done here is exemplary," says Brent Benjamin. "We had an inquiry hand-delivered to the Cairo Museum's director, Mohammed Saleh, saying that this was an object that had been offered to the museum for acquisition, and did he know any reason why the museum should not do that. We got a written response from Dr. Saleh that raised no concerns about the acquisition."

The letter the museum sent Saleh contains sparse details. The letter, penned by Sidney Goldstein, the museum's antiquities curator who initiated and oversaw the mask's purchase, says the museum has "been offered a mummy mask of the 19th dynasty and I was wondering if you know of any parallels to this object. I have never seen anything quite like it with a reddish copper-like face probably owing to the oxidation of the gold surface. It is currently on exhibition in the Egyptian exhibition at the Museum of Art and History in Geneva. I would greatly appreciate your thoughts on any parallels you might know of this piece and hope that I might have the opportunity to speak with you in several weeks by telephone about this opportunity."

Goldstein sent a photograph and physical description of the mask along with his letter to Saleh, but he did not mention Goneim by name, nor did he refer to the Saqqara excavations.

"The excavation information was not on the description of the mask because the letters [to Saleh] were sent out before the entire provenance was even discussed," says Jennifer Stoffel, director of marketing for the Saint Louis Art Museum. "This was early on, when we were only considering the object."

Saleh is no longer employed by the Cairo Museum and could not be reached for comment.

"Could it be that [Saleh] was unaware of where it might have come from? If Saleh failed to recognize the mask — when he was controlling literally millions of pieces of antiquities — it could be understandable," says Egyptologist Robert Ritner.

Adds Ritner: "At least it shows that they acted in good faith to contact him."

In 2003 Italian authorities indicted Marion True, formerly the antiquities curator for the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, for conspiring to receive stolen goods and the illicit receipt of artifacts. Earlier this month the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York ended a 30-year feud with the Italian government when it agreed to relinquish a 2,500-year-old Greek vase painted by the Greek master Euphronios. The Italians have long contended that the Euphronios Krater, considered one of the world's finest examples of Greek red-figured vases, was looted from an Etruscan tomb near Rome and smuggled out of the country. In a third high-profile case, New York antiquities dealer Frederick Schultz was sentenced in 2002 to 33 months in prison after a federal court determined he had conspired to deal in stolen antiquities.

Many archaeologists say the crackdown has been a long time coming. "On the whole, the [antiquities] market is fueled by works that are looted. There are some that are not, but most of them are. They get laundered and deprived of their histories, and then new histories are written and they are sold," says the University of Virginia's Malcolm Bell. "In many cases the dealers simply don't want to know, or they cover up the source. The dealers act as an almost impermeable filter that denies evidence to the purchaser."

Until the second half of the twentieth century, an artifact's provenance was generally regarded as an ancillary detail, obscured by the light of its inherent beauty, educational value and ability to transport the refined collector to a remote, halcyon past. Western excavators, curators and dealers were given almost free rein to cherry-pick a source country's finest antiquities, and many a Western archaeologist — whose job was to grow his museum-employer's collection — justified acquisitions by arguing that precious artifacts were better off in Western institutions where curators could work their preservation magic. Antiquities-rich nations such as Greece, Turkey, Italy and Egypt had yet to pass stringent laws governing the export of antiquities.

In the past 30 years, however, source countries like Egypt have enacted a thicket of legal impediments to export. In 1970 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization adopted the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property, which binds member nations to help retrieve stolen or illegally exported items at the request of another member state.

The United States was a late arrival at UNESCO's party, implementing it in 1983. That same year the Egyptian government passed a law mandating that any cultural artifact unearthed in that country after 1983 belonged to the Egyptian state.

"Anything discovered in Egypt post-1983 is owned by the Egyptian government," says DePaul University's Patty Gerstenblith. "So anything taken from [the ground in] Egypt without permission is stolen property."

More recently, source countries have stepped up recovery efforts and begun actively litigating for the return of what they see as their cultural patrimony.

"The equivalent figures [to Marion True] in other museums who've bought [antiquities] up to the present have been given pause. They're really being much more cautious," says Bell. "One of the [punitive] methods that the Italians are going to be using is helping those museums that have reasonable acquisitions policies, and not helping the ones that don't: not making [curatorial] loans. The result of this, I hope, is going to be that museums adopt written policies that are acceptable to the countries of origin, and that reflect the actual circumstances of the market, which is pretty murky and dismal."

If the Egyptian government awarded the mask to M. Zakaria Goneim in 1952, as a footnote to the provenance speculates, no law prohibits the Saint Louis Art Museum from possessing it — even if the archaeologist smuggled it out of the country at the time.

"If it was illegally exported in the '50s from Egypt, that doesn't make it illegal in the United States," says Gerstenblith. "That would require U.S. courts to apply the law of a different country on a U.S. institution."

But if the mask belonged to the Egyptian state when it left the country, Egypt could make a legal claim on Ka-Nefer-Nefer.

At any given time, there are only a few galleries worldwide that deal with antiquities on any significant scale. Of those, the elite dealers are the ones whose trade includes the unique, hard-to-find or never-before-seen. Regarded in another light, there's strong incentive for dealers — and museum curators — to traffic in plundered goods.

"Many curators would think: 'I really want the stuff. My job is to buy; it is to acquire. If I'm not building my collection, I'm not doing my job,'" says DePaul's Patty Gerstenblith. "It's very tempting for them to come in with great intentions, but when push comes to shove and they really want the piece, some of them will succumb to temptation and not ask too many hard questions."

Oiled by gentleman's agreements in the tony galleries of Geneva, London and New York, dealers closely guard their sources. A collector's request for anonymity is often honored as a matter of delicacy, and many dealers argue that merely because an item does not have a clear provenance does not necessarily mean it's been looted: Many objects passed into private collections before source countries tightened export laws.

In the late 1990s, Phoenix Ancient Art's aggressive buying habits vaulted the dealership to the top of the antiquities food chain. Founded in the 1960s by Sleiman Aboutaam, the enterprise passed to his sons Hicham and Ali when their father died in a 1998 plane crash. With galleries in Geneva and New York, the Aboutaams have sold pieces to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

They have also sold several artifacts whose provenances have subsequently been challenged, leading some in the antiquities field to regard the partnership with suspicion.

"St. Louis bought something from these guys? Boy, they should have known a lot better than that," marvels Thomas Hoving, former director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. "As a museum director and as a curator, the very name 'Aboutaam' — bells would have started ringing immediately."

In the years since the Saint Louis Art Museum bought the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask, both Ali and Hicham Aboutaam have been convicted on smuggling charges. In July 2004 a Manhattan federal judge sentenced Hicham Aboutaam to a year's probation and fined him $5,000 for fraudulently importing to the U.S. an Iranian drinking vessel that dated from 700 B.C. Declaring that the ceremonial vessel, or rhyton, originated in Syria, Aboutaam had sold it through his gallery to a private collector. Though the attorney who prosecuted the case initially charged Aboutaam with illegal importation, a felony, the dealer ultimately pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge of falsifying a customs document.

Earlier that same year an Egyptian court sentenced Ali Aboutaam in absentia to fifteen years in prison in an antiques-smuggling case. Aboutaam, who lives in Geneva, has denied the charge.

Reached by phone at his New York gallery, Hicham Aboutaam disputes the Egyptian court's ruling against his brother. "It's all false," says Aboutaam, who adds that an appeals court recently ordered a retrial in the cases of several of Ali's co-defendants.

(Asked to provide documentary evidence, Hicham Aboutaam sent what he says is a sworn statement from an attorney who confirms the appeals court's ruling. The Egyptian Embassy in Washington, D.C., was unable to confirm the status of the case.)

The day before Hicham Aboutaam pleaded guilty to the smuggling charge in New York, Phoenix Ancient Art sold a bronze statue of Apollo to the Cleveland Museum of Art. Soon after the purchase, allegations surfaced that the statue's provenance was false. The Aboutaams have stood by the artifact's purported history, as have Cleveland museum officials.

A similar scenario played out in 2001, when the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth quickly returned a Sumerian statue it had purchased for $2.7 million from Phoenix Ancient Art.

Following an Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigation, the U.S. government returned the "South Arabian Alabaster Stele" to Yemen after determining that the fourth-century funerary slab had in fact been stolen in 1994 from Yemen's Aden Museum. The ICE investigation was sparked in 2003 after the Aboutaam brothers consigned the stele for auction at Sotheby's. The provenance Phoenix Ancient Art provided listed the piece as having belonged to a private English collection. But Sotheby's researchers found published photographs of the stele indicating that it belonged to the Aden Museum.

Hicham Aboutaam says his 2004 conviction stemmed from a "lapse in judgment," adding that his father purchased the mask before his 1998 death.

"I understand that the sale of the mask was handled almost entirely by their late father about ten years ago," confirms Henry Bergman, an attorney for Phoenix Ancient Art. "So for all intents and purposes the only thing of substance anyone at Phoenix can tell you today about the transaction is old news based on what is in the company's files. Of course, no matter what the circumstance Phoenix stands behind what it sells and fully honors its warranties."

For his part, Hicham Aboutaam adds that Phoenix Ancient Art's business practices conform to modern legal standards. "We exercise more due diligence than we did twenty years ago or ten years ago," Aboutaam says. "We focus on the licit market; this is where our activities take place. By 'licit' we mean we ask many questions before we purchase a piece — in terms of where it has been, any documents related to its existence in a private collection and for how long. [We do so] much more than years ago."

The provenance Phoenix Ancient Art provided to the Saint Louis Art Museum has the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask arriving in Europe in 1952. Recently, however, an alternate history has emerged on Web sites and e-mail lists devoted to the recovery of plundered art.

Some now maintain that the mask was never given to Goneim but spent the bulk of the latter portion of the twentieth century locked away in a Saqqara storeroom.

Adding intrigue to the allegations is the fact that they originate from an infamous Dutch art smuggler-cum-sleuth named Michel van Rijn. Via his Web site, www.michelvanrijn.nl, the bombastic van Rijn asserts that the Ka-Nefer-Nefer was looted from its Saqqara storeroom in the late 1980s.

"The revered mask of a mummy, was stolen to order," van Rijn alleges on his Web site. "[It was] subsequently sold by the Aboutaams in 1998 to the Saint Louis Art Museum, where it remains to this day, a hostage against the prevailing laws on cultural patrimony."

To back his claim, van Rijn points to a supporting e-mail from Maarten Raven, who as Egyptian curator for the National Museum of Antiquities in the Netherlands has traveled annually to Egypt for three decades and has dug extensively near the site of Goneim's historic find.

"The finds of [Goneim's] excavation should be on storage in the so-called Sekhemkhet [storage facility]," van Rijn quotes Raven's e-mail. "This storeroom, which also served as a repository for numerous finds from our own excavations [...] has been entered by force and plundered at the end of the '80s. It is unknown to me whether the Egyptian authorities have communicated this theft at the time. I myself have seen an object from the said storeroom circulating on the Dutch art market in the '90s. I would not be surprised if various institutions or private collectors have purchased objects from this storeroom in that period."

A dentist's son, van Rijn commenced his career smuggling religious icons out of Russia, before cultivating a profitable, if illicit, relationship with the Japanese. In one famous exploit, van Rijn took advantage of the fact that he shares the surname of Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn, when he approached a group of Japanese collectors regarding the sale of a valuable Rembrandt self-portrait that had recently come on the market.

After an elaborate series of preparations, van Rijn sealed the deal with the Japanese at a vacant Dutch chateau he'd gussied up and claimed was Rembrandt's ancestral home. "There with the sunlight glinting on its heavily gilded frame, stood the self-portrait, looking for all the world as if it really had hung on that wall since the seventeenth century,'" the con man would recount in his 1993 autobiography, Hot Art, Cold Cash. Among other exploits, the book also chronicles his notorious forgery of a Barbarian treasure.

Though it merits nary a mention in Hot Art, Cold Cash, the Dutchman's path eventually led him to St. Louis, where in 1992 he wowed the natives by taking up residence in a mansion off Lindell Boulevard in the fashionable Central West End and hiring an Ethiopian domestic staff. When not dining at Balaban's, he could be spotted tooling around town in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce.

Van Rijn's St. Louis sojourn — marked by the purchase of a $25,000 personal gym, lavish Champagne-and-caviar parties at his white-columned manse, frequent expeditions to the antique shops on Euclid Avenue and a buying spree that saw him purchase the city's supply of Mickey Mouse paraphernalia — ended after six months, with a U.S. Customs Service investigation into a burgeoning heap of debts.

The Customs Service probe was prompted by a complaint from local defense attorney Scott Rosenblum, to whose client, well-to-do area businessman Ray Niemeyer, van Rijn had attempted to sell alleged forgeries of works by El Greco and Rembrandt.

"We'd like to talk to him, but we've got to find him first," then-Customs Service agent Allan Severson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1992. "This guy is pretty slick. He seems to have the modus operandi of going into a place, doing his business and slipping away."

Reached for comment for this story, van Rijn discounts accusations of wrongdoing in the Gateway City: "Everything was cleared, everything was paid," he writes in an ellipsis-pocked e-mail. "The most hurting was a guy who said I didn't pay for my gymnasium... Poor soul... His fifteen minutes."

Eventually van Rijn would find himself on the receiving end of a deal gone bad. Following a lengthy lawsuit regarding looted Cypriot mosaics, he cut a deal with British investigators, agreeing to help track down stolen artwork in return for protection.

In 1999 he set up his Web site as a vehicle to expose looted artworks via a network of old smuggling chums. Today van Rijn is looked upon as a well-connected and prolific — if bombastic and not always accurate — provocateur.

"Would I touch him with a ten-foot pole?" posits former Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Hoving. "I'd hit him over the head with a ten-foot pole."

"He has a very mixed reputation," adds an attorney familiar with van Rijn's history who declined to be identified for fear of ending up on the receiving end of the Dutchman's ire. "I will say on the other hand: Sometimes you find stuff on that site that is correct. It's a minefield: He could be right, he could be wrong, but I wouldn't take anything he says as gospel truth."

One of van Rijn's favorite targets has been the Aboutaam brothers, to whom he refers as "the Aboutermites." He accuses them of everything from antiquities smuggling to having connections to the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah.

The Aboutaams responded by accusing van Rijn of attempted extortion. Last year, in fact, a Swiss court jailed him for eight days on charges of extortion and calumny, the Swiss equivalent of slander. In the end, however, the court ruled it didn't have jurisdiction over van Rijn, a Dutchman, and dismissed the case.

"He was basically trying to blackmail us," says Hicham Aboutaam, who adds that associates of van Rijn have also solicited money in exchange for stemming the tide of negative publicity. "He was taken semi-seriously in the beginning when he launched the site, but not any more."

Retorts van Rijn via e-mail: "They can (pardon my French) fuck themselves. If I was poor and desperate, I would prefer to starve [rather than take] one penny from the Devil or anybody else."

Unbowed, van Rijn says that he has sources familiar with the theft, and that the Aboutaams knew the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask was stolen property when they sold it to the Saint Louis Art Museum.

Reached via e-mail, Maarten Raven affirms his e-mail to van Rijn, adding, "I know for sure [the theft] must have been January 1986 or one of the following years."

Raven bases this assertion on his own excavations at Saqqara. "Objects of our 1985 season were included in the theft," the archaeologist explains. "Of course, we reported this to the local authorities of the antiquities organization, who made a full inventory of the [facility] and confirmed that objects from [Goneim's] Sekhemkhet excavations had also fallen victim to the robbery."

Raven cautions that he can't say for certain whether the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask was among the looted objects. "I cannot confirm that the mask now in St. Louis was one of the pieces," he says. "[But] [a]s far as I know, this mask was never brought to the Cairo Museum [where other objects from Goneim's excavations are on display]."

Van Rijn has also garnered support from Ton Cremers, founder of the Museum Security Network, an online clearinghouse for information about stolen art.

"It is quite obvious that this acquisition was against the law...and against basic moral principles," Cremers writes in an e-mail he sent to Saint Louis Art Museum director Brent Benjamin and also copied to Riverfront Times. "It is totally flabbergasting that...requests for information about the provenance of a very valuable, and rare, AND stolen Egyptian mask are ignored."

Additionally, van Rijn's online campaign has caught the attention of Hany Hanna, general director of the department of conservation for Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.

"What is the museum[?] [I]s it a respectable place with a respectable role or it is a place for crime in another form? Do we have what we can call a criminal museum?" Hanna asks in an open letter to the International Council of Museums. "A mummy mask of Ka Nefer Nefer, published by Goneim in 1957, has been looted in the late '80s from the Saqqara Storeroom and sold in 1998 by Ali Aboutaam to the St. Louis Art Museum."

Van Rijn's crusade has not escaped the notice of the Saint Louis Art Museum. "It's not an allegation that is made lightly, and it's certainly not one that I take lightly," says Benjamin, adding that he will closely consider any new information about the mask's history. "Mistakes can be made. You're frequently in the situation of having to make decisions without having complete information, and information can be out there of which one was unaware, and in the face of which one may rethink what one's done. We would certainly do that."

Former New York Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Hoving takes a harder line. "The mask's provenance sounds like the stuff we used to use," quips Hoving, who was director of the Met when the museum acquired the disputed Euphronios Krater. "It was kind of a joke. Everybody went nudge-nudge, wink-wink. You know: 'Oh, yeah, right, "the anonymous Swiss collector." That's good.' It was kind of a joke. Now it's no longer a joke. This is the kind of provenance that, personally, I wouldn't have anything to do with."

Emory University museum curator Lacovara — whose letters the museum has used to bolster the mask's provenance — agrees. "While there may be a remote possibility that the piece has a legitimate provenance, it seems unlikely," Lacovara writes in an e-mail to Riverfront Times. "I would think that if St. Louis cannot prove that the mask was legally awarded to Goneim and sold by him or his heirs, the mask should be considered stolen and returned to Egypt."

Zahi Hawass, secretary general for Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities who has recently burnished his image by aggressively tracking down stolen artifacts, has not made any public statement about the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask. (Hawass did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)

For the time being, the Saint Louis Art Museum is standing by the mask's provenance. As are the Aboutaams. Asked whether there is any truth to van Rijn's allegations about the mask, Hicham Aboutaam replies, "Absolutely none."

Of course, it would be a simple matter to trace the mask's journey were it not for Goneim's untimely death.

By March 1954 M. Zakaria Goneim had succeeded in uncovering a sunken entryway that led to the newly discovered pyramid's central funerary chamber. Though the archaeologist had encountered signs — animal corpses, papyrus scrolls — that later generations had breached the entryway via a vertical shaft, he was heartened to discover that the passageway had been sealed with rough-hewn stones.

As digging progressed, Goneim began to imagine he could sense the pharaoh who'd lived nearly 5,000 years before.

"It may sound fantastic, but I felt that the pyramid had a personality and that this personality was that of the king for whom it was built," Goneim writes in The Buried Pyramid. "You crawl along some dark corridor on hands and knees, past falls of rock.... [T]he workmen have been left behind, and suddenly you realize you are alone in a place which has not heard a footfall for nearly fifty centuries. Above you is more than 100 feet of solid rock, and above that again rests the bulk of the pyramid. No one with imagination can have such an experience and not be profoundly stirred."

So it was with great excitement that on May 31, 1954, Goneim and his crew finally broke through to the funerary chamber.

"When we picked ourselves up and the lamp was raised, a wonderful sight greeted us," Goneim writes. "In the middle of the rough-cut chamber lay a magnificent sarcophagus of pale, golden, translucent alabaster."

Unlike previously exhumed sarcophagi, which opened by a lid on the top, the Sekhemkhet sarcophagus opened and closed via a sliding panel at its foot. What's more, the coffin appeared to be sealed.

"[O]ne by one, my other workmen clambered through the hole in the blockage," Goneim would later recall. "I gave way completely to my pent-up feelings, kept in check for so long. We danced round the sarcophagus and wept. We embraced each other. It was a very strange moment in that dark chamber, 130 feet beneath the surface of the desert."

It was an important find: Though Egypt's Upper and Lower Kingdoms were unified during the Third Dynasty, Egyptologists knew precious little about the period. When the world's media got wind of Goneim's discovery, journalists from Buenos Aires to London descended on Saqqara.

"On most days I had hardly time to dress and have breakfast before the crunch of car tyres on the gravel outside my house would announce the arrival of yet another visitor," writes Goneim, who clearly relished the attention. "[S]ome archaeologists deplore all this, but, although I admit that it can be embarrassing at times and sometimes adds a heavy burden to the duties of the archaeologist, I think this interest should be welcome and encouraged."

In a scene eerily similar to Geraldo Rivera's opening of Al Capone's vault 30 years later, Goneim staged a media event when he opened the sarcophagus on June 26, 1954.

It was empty.

"I rose to my feet bewildered," Goneim would write. "The thing was at first beyond comprehension."

Though understandably deflated, Goneim continued his excavation of the buried pyramid for two more years before being promoted to director of the Cairo Museum — a post he was destined never to assume.

In 1958 he was accused of looting artifacts from Saqqara, and though his friend and colleague, Jean-Philippe Lauer, hastened to Cairo with exculpatory evidence, he arrived too late. On January 12, 1959, Goneim threw himself into the Nile River and drowned.