German Art Collector Loses Bid to Keep Ancient Mask Looted From Egypt

Dirk Gemünden bought three art objects at an auction in 2020. He has been allowed to keep one of them.

The Stahlhof, seat of the Düsseldorf Administrative Court and founding site of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia in 1946. Photo by Oliver Berg/picture alliance via Getty Images

A German art collector lost out in his attempt to retain possession of an ancient mask deemed to have been looted from Egypt Friday, after a German court rejected his claim and upheld an earlier ruling, the German news agency DPA reported.

Dirk Gemünden, 80, filed the lawsuit against the government of North Rhine-Westphalia after authorities seized a 2,000-year-old Egyptian coffin mask and a 3,500-year-old brooch from him in 2020.

But the Düsseldorf Administrative Court ruled Friday that the NRW Ministry of Culture was right to seize both items because it could not be ruled out that the objects were illegally obtained from Egypt.

The coffin mask is believed to have been looted during excavations that took place between 2011 and 2017 before it was put up for auction in France in 2017, according to the DPA report.

Gemünden bought three art objects at an auction in the U.S. in 2020: the mask, the brooch and a 2,500-year-old coffin plaque. The collector was able to prove that the third item did not fall under the Cultural Protection Act. The law, passed in 2016, is aimed at combatting illicit trafficking of cultural property.

The court found that the brooch and the mask could be considered national cultural assets of Egypt, making them subject to the law. Gemünden told the court he had assumed the mask had been in the private possession of a person in the U.S. since the 1970s.

However, Judge Andreas Heusch indicated he was open to a proposal from Gemünden, who argued that the masks should be exhibited in an institution he established with his wife, the Obentraut 3 Museum, before they are returned to Egypt and disappear “into some storage facility.”

Artnet News reached out to Gemünden for comment through the museum, but did not hear back by press time.

The court decision comes as a similar restitution case is winding its way through French courts. The transitional government of Gabon, which underwent a military coup d’état in August, has begun a legal battle for the restitution of an antique mask. The item is already at the center of a lawsuit between an elderly couple and the antiques dealer they bought it from, who they believe cheated them out of higher profits from its sale.


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