In a case that has dominated the international press for several weeks, former director of the Louvre Museum in Paris Jean-Luc Martinez was charged last month with conspiring to hide the origin of Egyptian archaeological treasures that were acquired for display by the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum in the UAE.
Since then, further details have been released about the case and the involvement of more suspects. Last week, emails and police reports were published in the French newspaper Libération between the Louvre in Paris and the Agence France-Muséums (AFM), an agency established in 2007 in the framework of the agreement between the UAE and France concerning the creation of the Louvre Abu Dhabi and apparently showing that the AFM was involved in providing misleading documents leading to the purchase of illegally exported antiquities.
In an article entitled “Louvre Abu Dhabi named Civil Party in Probe into Alleged Antiquity Trafficking” published by the Gulf newspaper The Khaleej Times last week, the newspaper quoted the museum as saying that the “Louvre Abu Dhabi confirms it has become a civil party in the ongoing French investigations related to the alleged trafficking of Egyptian antiquities.”
There was no further comment, with the Louvre Abu Dhabi saying the matter was “under investigation”.
The Khaleej Times wrote that Louvre Abu Dhabi lawyer Jean-Jacques Neuer had said earlier that it was “inconceivable” the museum would not constitute itself as a civil party in the case, as it had been a victim of the scandal.
“The Louvre Abu Dhabi is the victim of trafficking in Egyptian antiquities while it is a flagship cultural institution known around the world. As it has impeccable ethics on these subjects, it wishes to know exactly what happened and shed light on this case,” Neuer said.
Current investigations have revealed that the sale of ancient Egyptian objects to the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MOMA) in New York between 2013 and 2017 may have been done with fake export documents.
Among the objects in question is a granite stela bearing the stamp of the golden boy-king Tutankhamun that is now on display in the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
According to a report published in the French newspaper the Canard Enchainé, the story began as early as 2018, two years after the Louvre’s branch in Abu Dhabi bought a rare pink granite stela depicting Tutankhamun and four other ancient Egyptian artefacts.
Martinez, who as director of the Louvre in Paris was in office from 2013 to 2021, was accused of turning a blind eye to fake certificates of origin for the pieces, a fraud thought also to have involved several other art experts.
The Canard Enchainé reported that some of the same French experts who had certified the Tutankhamun stela had also certified another prized Egyptian work, a gilded coffin of the priest Nedjemankh that was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2017.
Investigations have revealed that five other ancient Egyptian objects at the Museum are also among those under investigation, and they have now been confiscated on the orders of a New York state judge. The pieces were purchased by the museum between 2013 and 2015, according to the Art Newspaper, a UK-based monthly.
The Art Newspaper described two of the objects as “exceptional”, one of them being a funerary portrait from the Fayoum depicting a lady wearing a blue dress and made during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero in the first century CE.
The other object consists of five fragments of a wall hanging illustrating the Biblical Book of Exodus painted on linen and dating between the fourth and fifth centuries CE.
In 2019, the Metropolitan Museum of Art handed over a gilded sarcophagus of the priest Nedjemankh to Egypt after investigations by the New York district attorney’s office revealed that it had been stolen and illegally smuggled out of Egypt during the 2011 Revolution and then sold to the museum accompanied by fake export documents.
Egypt’s National Committee for the Repatriation of Stolen and Smuggled Antiquities is following the investigation by the French authorities into the former director of the Louvre in Paris. It said that it had been following up the issue with the French authorities since 2020, when the case was first brought before a French judge. The Egyptian government would take all necessary measures to retrieve any artefact proven to have left the country illegally, it said.
Writing in an article entitled “A French Egyptologist’s Warning Could Be Key to the Investigation of the Louvre’s Ex-Director,” published on Thursday in USA Art News, Marc Gabolde, a French specialist in ancient Egypt and a professor at the Paul Valéry University in Montpellier in France, was quoted by the Canard Enchainé as saying that he had informed Louvre officials about suspicions related to the Tutankhamun stele but had received no response.
A source from the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities who spoke on condition of anonymity told Al-Ahram Weekly that the government would not permit illegally smuggled artefacts to remain outside Egypt.
“Egypt will demand the restitution of any objects that are proven to have been stolen and illegally smuggled out of the country,” he said.
A version of this article appears in print in the 23 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.