Key warning ignored – ARTnews.com

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The art world was stunned last week when Jean-Luc Martinez, former director of the Louvre, was charged with “complicity in fraud and laundering of gangs”, relating to the purchase of antiquities allegedly looted for the permanent collection of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Then, the Louvre announced on Monday that it had asked to join the criminal investigation as a civil party, which could allow the Parisian museum to receive damages in the event of a decision in its favor that it has been directly harmed by the alleged trafficking network.

The international investigation is currently investigating the sale of objects for $56 million to the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Metropolitan Museum of Art between 2013 and 2017.

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But, as more and more details emerge, one researcher seems to have played an outsized role: Marc Gabolde, a French specialist in ancient Egypt and professor at Paul Valéry University in Montpellier. Gabolde, who gained notoriety for investigating missing Egyptian artifacts, informed the Louvre years ago of an object’s murky provenance.

In 2018, Gabolde – an expert on the young pharaoh Tutankhamun – began researching an exceptionally well-preserved pink granite stele depicting the pharaoh, made shortly before his death around 1318 BCE. The stele, now at the heart of the investigation involving Martinez, was purchased by the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2016 for 8.5 million euros, with the agreement of the Louvre in Paris and the Agence France-Muséums, which manages the best public museums in France.

At that time, Martinez ran the Louvre and was chairman of the scientific committee of the Agence France-Muséums, responsible for authenticating the provenance of works of art intended to be acquired by the Louvre Abu Dhabi. He remained in both positions until last year.

In 2019, Gabolde had compiled several red flags pointing to the stele’s questionable origins. The main indicator was that the object was once held by Egyptian dealer Habib Tawadros in the 1930s. Tawadros is also linked to the golden sarcophagus of Egyptian priest Nedjemankh, purchased by the Met in 2017, seized by US authorities and returned to Egypt in 2019.

“It alarmed me,” Gabolde told the OCBC in 2021, according to the French daily Releasewho obtained a copy of Gabolde’s deposition.

A warning, but no “conclusive” evidence

Gabolde shared his initial findings with Vincent Rondot, the head of the Louvre’s Egyptian department; Olivier Perdu, editor-in-chief of Review of Egyptology, with whom he was to publish an article on the stele; and Martinez.

While researching the stele, Gabolde compiled a list of items believed to have been owned by Tawadros and then sold to a German merchant navy officer known as Johannes Behrens. Two of the objects were “already problematic”, according to Gabolde. When he presented this to his colleagues, they felt that “the results of the investigation were uncomfortable and embarrassing for the pedigree of the stele,” Gabolde said.

Ultimately, Gabolde’s findings about the stele’s origins “were not conclusive,” Perdu said. ART news, a characterization with which Gabolde agreed. Furthermore, Perdu said that at the time he had seen “nothing that allowed me to be convinced of the fraudulent origins of the stele”.

Gabolde asked Louvre Abu Dhabi to provide Tawadros’s receipt, but they instead provided other information that Gabolde found “unreliable (to say the least),” he said. To publish the Review article, Gabolde needed the consent of the museum.

“I offered not to put anything on provenance in the article, which seemed to satisfy everyone,” Gabolde said.

Perdu said he advised Gabolde not to mention possible provenance issues without proof, but that “if he is convinced that the object is of suspicious or illicit origin, he should not publish his article “.

Certain suspicions are common when trying to piece together the origins of ancient and unknown works of art, Perdu explained. But proof is essential and sometimes elusive.

“It is only now – and rightly so – that we worry more about the origin of [art] objects. When I started my work as an Egyptologist, no one cared about an object’s pedigree…so many objects appear without a pedigree. It’s a real problem,” Perdu said.

Gabolde’s final report on the stele was published in Review in 2019. It did not include his research on its export from Egypt or any mention of Tawadros or Behrens. (He declined to share with ART news the unpublished investigation he had shared with Rondot, Perdu and Martinez.)

Now the French satirical newspaper The chained Duck, and other French reports with access to legal documents, say Martinez is accused of rejecting Gabolde’s findings, and possibly other evidence of illicit origin, which could make him complicit in fraud and money laundering. ‘silver.

Perdu and Rondot were questioned by the French Central Office for the Fight against Trafficking in Cultural Property (OCBC), under the direction of investigating judge Jean-Michel Gentil, but the two were not charged with wrongdoing. and were eventually released.

Once Gabolde shared his research with Martinez, Perdu and Rondot, the museum had the opportunity to go further, he said.

“I thought that if they wanted to pursue the investigation to confirm or discredit the pedigree, my notes on its provenance might be useful material, which could also be passed on to official investigators,” he said.

It never seems to have happened.

A sailboat is anchored at sunset outside Louvre Abu Dhabi in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

A sailboat is anchored at sunset outside Louvre Abu Dhabi in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021.
AP Photo/Jon Gambrell

Links to another major survey

The French newspaper Release reported on May 26 that no less than seven forged documents had been used to sell the stele in the past. Furthermore, he discovered that the stele and several other Egyptian antiquities purchased by the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Met had all been sold by French dealer Christophe Kunicki, the expert who headed the prestigious auction house’s archeology department. at the Paris auction Pierre Bergé & Associates.

Kunicki was charged with criminal conspiracy, gang fraud and money laundering in 2020, although he maintained his innocence. However, in March, Pierre Bergé & Associés was indicted for “complicity in organized fraud” and “money laundering”, for having allowed the authentication and sale of several stolen archaeological works.

The auction house is “one of the most important vectors for this form of illicit trafficking,” the OCBC said in its report, according to a Release article, published Tuesday.

For nearly 15 years, Kunicki was an expert certifier of archaeological work at Pierre Bergé, as well as its supplier of ancient works, for which he obtained a commission.

Kunicki purchased numerous suspicious works of art from Hamburg-based German-Lebanese dealer Roben Dib, now considered a “prominent member of this criminal organization”, according to the same OCBC report. Dib was arrested in March for gang fraud and money laundering.

Release also identified another Kunicki supplier named Ayad K., known to Swiss authorities for possession of archaeological objects looted from Yemen and Iraq.

To date, the boss of Pierre Bergé & Associés, Antoine Godeau, questioned by the police in June 2020, has not been charged with any crime.

Gabolde, for his part, does not blame his fellow experts. “Conservators, Egyptologists and Egypt are victims, not accomplices in this case,” Gabolde said. ART news in an email.

A Louvre spokesperson said Rondot declined to comment. Martinez’s lawyers released a statement challenging his indictment and insisting on “his good faith.”

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