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Louvre: Former Head Charged for Complicity in Art Trafficking by David Boos

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Louvre: Former Head Charged for Complicity in Art Trafficking

Jean-Luc Martinez, former head of the Paris Louvre, has been charged in a criminal investigation surrounding the trafficking of antiquities. He has been accused of complicity in fraud and “concealing the origin of criminally obtained works by false endorsement” to hide the source of archaeological treasures taken out of Egypt during the Arab Spring. Martinez, who was the president of the Louvre from 2013 to 2021 and has since started serving as an ambassador for the French foreign ministry on cultural heritage, has denied all allegations.

Investigators are looking into whether Martinez turned a blind eye to the inauthenticity of certificates establishing the provenance of the works in question. The initial charges were based on the purchase of a total of five antiquities for $8.5 million in 2016 by the Louvre Abu Dhabi. These were allegedly pillaged during the Arab Spring, including a granite stele stating a royal decree from King Tutankhamun, dating from 1237 BCE. In 2018, French police opened investigations, which resulted in the arrest of the German-Lebanese gallery owner Robin Dib from Hamburg in March 2022 for facilitating the sale.

Alongside Martinez, the Parisian expert and dealer Christophe Kunicki has been charged with criminal conspiracy, gang fraud, and laundering. In 2017, Kunicki sold a golden sarcophagus, taken from Egypt during the protests in 2011 and subsequently sold via the United Arab Emirates, Germany, and France, to the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for €3.5 million. The artwork has since been seized by the district attorney and returned to Egypt. Criminal investigators are now looking into the acquisitions of other objects by the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Metropolitan for a sum of more than €50 million from Kunicki and Dib.

Suspicions toward Martinez were based on his role in a joint commission, co-chaired by the Louvre director himself and introduced by the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2007, that must approve acquisitions by the Emirati museum with the help of French expertise. Martinez is accused of dismissing doubts expressed by the Egyptologist Marc Gaborde, who in 2019 challenged the provenance of the stele sold in 2016. But a source close to the Louvre told The Art Newspaper that “neither Martinez nor the Louvre were legally responsible for the sale and the ownership of the object, which were the full responsibility of the Emirati State. Egypt has not made any claim for restitution, although these antiquities have been on display” since 2017.

Since the news of the charges against Martinez broke, however, more museums and other parties are joining the civil action. Besides the Paris Louvre, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has become a civil party in the criminal investigation into possible antiquities trafficking. “Following the revelations in the media, the Emirati museum wants access to the investigation files, to establish the facts and act accordingly,” said the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s lawyer. Also, the Swiss collector Jean-Clauda Gandur filed a suit for the “forged provenance” of an artwork obtained by him in 2014, the sale of which both Dib and Kunicki had been involved and which shows the same dubious provenance as the stele sold to Abu Dhabi.

Following the chaos of the Arab Spring, many Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen have been affected by artefacts being pillaged. While the French ministry of culture and foreign affairs decided to retain Martinez as a special ambassador for cultural cooperation, he has been advised to withdraw from discussions around art trafficking, and the French Minister of Culture Rima Abdul Malak confirmed the “constant and firm commitment of France against art trafficking.”

David Boos is an organist, documentary filmmaker, and writer for The European Conservative and other publications.