Commentary on SLAM Mummy Mask Case - Proceeds Contraband and Statute of Limitations

Friday, August 26, 2011
The current civil litigation surrounding whether the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mummy mask is contraband is worth following given the current legal arguments in play.

The mask, located at the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM), is claimed by the federal government to be contraband, which is always unlawful to possess. SLAM, meanwhile, argues that the mask, if it is contraband, must be considered derivative contraband, compelling the government to prove that the mask was utilized in the commission of a crime.

It is open to discussion whether the mummy mask fits into the same category as contraband like illegal narcotics. It is also remarkable to think of the mummy mask as derivative contraband like a car used in illegal gun running. It may be that both legal theories are inexact.

The mummy mask might be categorized as proceeds or fruits instead.

Broadly speaking, criminal search and seizure law categorizes property as fruits, instrumentalities, or contraband. Fruits of a crime are the proceeds of a criminal transaction. These items are ones connected with a criminal act and may be seized. Instrumentalities are objects used to facilitate a crime, and these too may be seized. Contraband items are ones that are plainly unlawful to possess like counterfeit money, and these too may be seized.

In the realm of civil forfeiture of property, particularly dealing with items alleged to be connected to a crime, these criminal law concepts of fruits, instrumentalities, and contraband may be translated into three legal theories: proceeds forfeiture, instrumentalities forfeiture, and contraband forfeiture. If contraband forfeiture is the argument of the government, and instrumentalities forfeiture is the argument of the museum, will proceeds forfeiture be considered by the court? We shall see.

Meanwhile, SLAM’s assertion that the statute of limitations has expired in this case, preventing the government from pursuing its court action, is an argument worth watching closely. Statute of limitations is always an issue of importance when applied to cases of fine art and cultural heritage. In the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mummy mask case, it should be noted that the statute of limitations would not likely apply if the mummy mask is categorized as contraband per se. That is because it would be unlawful to possess the mask under any circumstance at any time. And that is perhaps one reason why the government hopes to characterize the mask as contraband, because it could potentially steer the case away from litigation over the statute of limitations altogether.

We look forward to further developments.

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