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Tutankhamun’s curse hits the Louvre – Jeune Afrique

At the beginning of February 2022, the former president and director of the Louvre, Jean-Luc Martinez, appointed in September 2021 ambassador in charge of international cooperation in the field of heritage, completed his first major field mission in Benin devoted to the restitution cultural property, a policy dear to French President Emmanuel Macron.

Martinez, who had been at the head of the largest museum in the world since 2013, wanted to serve a third term there. But, despite pressure from Jean-Yves Le Drian, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Élysée made another choice while creating, to console the flunked, a post of “thematic” ambassador, responsible for the restitution program, the fight against trafficking in cultural property and the protection of heritage in conflict zones.

Applauding, in Cotonou, the return of twenty-six works from the royal treasury of Abomey, did Martinez expect lightning to fall on him a few weeks later? Placed in police custody on May 23, the new sherpa of Macron’s cultural diplomacy was indicted after 48 hours for “complicity in fraud in an organized gang and laundering by false facilitation of the origin of property from a crime or a misdemeanor”.

He is indeed suspected of having, in 2016, turned a blind eye to the dubious provenance of Egyptian antiquities, allowing the Louvre Abu Dhabi to acquire seven pieces which turned out to have been looted in Egypt, including a rare stele. of Pharaoh Tutankhamun.

Stormy Arab Spring

The affair germinated in 2011, when the storms of the Arab Spring left sites and museums unguarded: a godsend for the well-organized networks of one of the first international traffics, that of art objects. In Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, diggers are ravaging archaeological sites in search of artifacts coveted by wealthy people and museums around the world. Egypt, in political and social turmoil until 2014, was not spared, and dozens of looted works left the country.

Acte II, Paris, in the offices of the cultural engineering agency France Muséums, created in 2007 to help the Louvre Abu Dhabi (partner, in the Gulf, of the palace on the banks of the Seine) to succeed in its launch. In 2016, Jean-Luc Martinez, then also co-president of this institution, was asked by the prestigious Parisian auction house Pierre Bergé et Associés to appraise and certify the purchase of objects intended for the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The objects, authentic but not considered “national treasures”, obtain the certificates and leave for the emirates after a transaction of 56 million euros.

Kim Kardashian enters the scene

Act III, New York, the Metropolitan Museum, in 2019. On stage for a brief but decisive appearance is the star of influencers, Kim Kardashian, who poses in a gold scabbard next to an Egyptian sarcophagus dressed in the same metal. The cliché, widely distributed, is obvious to a master looter who remembers not having been paid for this masterpiece.

In spite, he sends the Manhattan prosecutor the photo taken during the exhumation of the sarcophagus to prove to the sponsor the authenticity of the offense (on this market, half of the pieces being fakes, the traffickers themselves demand proof of authenticity!). American sleuths establish that the prestigious museum has been fooled with falsified documents. The sarcophagus is quickly returned to Egypt.

The investigation follows the thread of the sale and ends up with a Parisian antique dealer and knowledgeable Egyptologist, Christophe Kunicki, who directs the auctions of antiquities at Pierre Bergé et Associés. Indicted in 2020 with her husband, Richard Semper, he finally admitted having produced certain forgeries. Investigators from the Office for the Fight against Trafficking in Cultural Property are taking a close interest in the many requests for export certification he has submitted. Among these, the documents of at least five pieces sold in Abu Dhabi, including the famous stele, show falsifications similar to the works acquired by the Metropolitan.

The ten pieces sold by Bergé to American and Emirati museums had previously been acquired from an art dealer in Hamburg, Roben Dib, who produced the fakes on an antique typewriter. In his emails are found dozens of photos of antiquities being exhumed, sent by their looters.

Jean-Luc Martinez, June 23, 2020, when he was still president and director of the Louvre Museum. © Julien Mignot/The New York Times/REA

Extradited to France, Dib was indicted on March 14, 2022 and promised to collaborate. Would he have brought to the examining magistrate Jean-Michel Gentil the elements which motivated the indictment, two months later, of the former director of the Louvre? Placed in police custody with two former collaborators, Martinez is the only one to be prosecuted for complicity with the traffickers, and it is difficult to find, in what he has come out of the case, the “serious and concordants” which may have led the judge to decide on such a measure.

An intransigent Gentile judge

One element could fuel the suspicion: in 2019, another renowned Egyptologist, Marc Gabolde, having looked into this stele of Tutankhamun, had informed the Louvre of his doubts about the real journey of the object. He was then fired. Did he put his finger on a traffic to hide? Or was it too disturbing to come back to this sale, concluded three years ago?

Lawyers accuse him of resorting a little too easily to pre-trial detention

The key is probably in the trunk of Judge Gentil, not well known for his clemency. In a portrait devoted to this “intransigent and solitary judge”, the daily The world wrote about him in 2013: “The lawyers, who criticize him for resorting a little too easily to pre-trial detention, do not like him. »

The reputation of Martinez – who vigorously disputes the facts – is more flattering. Well-placed personalities in the spheres of heritage conservation assure (on condition of anonymity because the case makes one shudder) that the ex-boss of the Louvre is “deeply honest” and “above all suspicion” . Could the traffickers have fooled the one who, in a 2015 report entitled “Protecting heritage in situations of armed conflict”, notably warned of the trap of pedigrees invented to launder looted works before introducing them? in the legal market?

Good reputation

Archaeologist passionate about “his” Arab terrain, Vincent Michel devotes himself without counting to the fight against the trafficking of looted objects, carrying out monitoring and awareness-raising actions since he heard of the first waves of wild excavations, in 2011. In 2021, in order to draw public attention to this scourge, he convinced Jean-Luc Martinez to exhibit four Libyan statues and two Syrian reliefs illegally exported. If he does not wish to comment on this sensitive and still opaque affair, his explanations on the clandestine trade plead in favor of Martinez.

The traffickers prefer to attack looted objects, which do not have a birth certificate

“A curator is competent to determine the authenticity of an object, but is not an expert in false papers, which are remarkably made by high-level traffickers. The expertise of the documents is more a matter of the police and customs, he explains. Moreover, awareness of the scale of trafficking and its links with organized crime and terrorism only began to awaken in 2015, with the predations of Daesh. For a long time it was enough to check if a work was not on the Interpol database of stolen objects to be able to declare it not stolen. »

However, insists the researcher, the stolen objects, known and inventoried, no longer count for much in this traffic, the perpetrators of which now preferably attack looted objects. Their existence having been neither declared nor recorded, all one has to do is invent a story for them and assign them sorts of certificates of origin so that they can arise, bleached, on the art market and be sold there at the best price. Made on old paper, with vintage typewriters and stamps, the counterfeit documents combine the fictions necessary for money laundering with real references.

With the internet, objects to be looted and buyers can be found in two clicks

Such forgeries were thus able to convince the curators of the New York Metropolitan. Vincent Michel denounces another worrying phenomenon which, thanks to the political instability of certain countries, helps to “boost” the market for looted objects, and therefore to multiply the number of works on the legal market. “With the internet, explains the archaeologist, objects to be looted and buyers can be found in two clicks. One: location of sites, places to dig, type of objects to keep, how to clean them… Two: the commercial side, online sales sites, e-bay, Catawiki, hundreds of pages on Facebook, WhatsApp, etc. The equipment in metal detectors, which becomes widespread, amplifies the haemorrhage”.

Geopolitical risks

The runaway art market is not likely to discourage the trend. Among the spendthrift crooks, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, in search of three hundred exceptional objects in addition to those lent by French museums, is a prey of choice for seasoned and well-connected traffickers. Quoted by the daily Release, the investigators describe, in a report, the very prestigious auction house Pierre Bergé as “one of the most important vectors of this form of illicit trafficking”.

Did Martinez err on the side of naivety when he said, in July 2021, on the eve of being appointed to his new post as ambassador: “The only response against trafficking is to promote legal trade. You have to work with the big sales companies, the big merchants”?

Director of a shock documentary on the “Salvator Mundi”, this painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and acquired in 2017 for 450 million dollars by Mohammed Ben Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, the journalist Antoine Vitkine remembers that Martinez s he found himself faced with the Saudi demand to display the painting in full glory, as a masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci, while its attribution and condition were hotly debated among experts.

“Under the pressure of the great cultural diplomacy desired by President Macron and relations with the Gulf, pampered by the Minister of Foreign Affairs Le Drian, Martinez knew how to play ingeniously between the necessities of his position at the head of the Louvre and the constraints geopolitics, explains Vitkine to Young Africa. He got what he wanted, without offending the Saudis. But it is certain that navigating the troubled waters of geopolitics is not without risks”.

Martinez’s appointment was a gesture of friendship towards Abu Dhabi

And these are not lacking, both in the increasingly Faustian relationship that French leaders have had with the petromonarchies since the 1980s and in the contradictions of a Macronian diplomacy which wants, at the same time, to seduce the peoples of Africa and the princes of Arabia, to restore important cultural assets below the Sinai and to be, beyond, the first partner of the wealthy museums that are being set up.

About the appointment of the former director of the Louvre as cultural ambassador, the chained duck wrote, in its June 1 edition: “It was also a gesture of friendship towards Abu Dhabi, which maintains the best relations with Martinez”. In the troubled waters of this hazy economic-cultural geopolitics, will Tutankhamun’s stele be the pitfall that will sink Jean-Luc Martinez’s brilliant career for good?

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