Jean-Luc Martinez, who served as president of the Louvre Museum in Paris from 2013 to 2021, was charged yesterday, May 25 for complicity in fraud and concealing the origin of works reportedly smuggled out of Egypt and purchased for the museum’s Abu Dhabi location.
The charges stem from the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s 2016 purchase of antiquities that were allegedly pillaged during the Arab Spring — the early 2010s protests that began in Egypt and spread across the region. The museum purchased five now-disputed antiquities for $8.5 million dollars, including a 1237 BCE granite stele stating a royal decree from King Tutankhamun.
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French authorities opened the investigation in 2018, two years after the museum’s purchase. In March, they arrested German-Lebanese gallery owner, Robin Dib, who facilitated the sale. Dib was detained in Hamburg and extradited to Paris.
According to the satirical French news outlet that broke the story, Canard enchaîné, investigators are seeking to determine whether Martinez turned a blind eye to the inauthenticity of certificates establishing the works’ provenance.
Martinez was taken into custody for questioning by France’s Central Office for the Fight against Trafficking in Cultural Property. Two Egyptologists who worked with Martinez at the Louvre were also brought in for questioning, but unlike Martinez, they were not charged.
Martinez has denied the accusations.
Since stepping down from his post at the Louvre in 2021, Martinez now serves as an ambassador for the French foreign ministry on cultural heritage. In February 2022, France organized a UNESCO conference on fighting illegal art trafficking through intra-European cooperation, held at the Louvre.
In a small exhibition that closed in February of this year, the Louvre displayed four statues from Libya that were seized by French customs in an attempted smuggling operation. The exhibition called specific attention to the effect of the Arab Spring protests on the illegal antiquity trade, which benefited from an increase in looting and subsequent sales of Egyptian antiquities to international buyers.
New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired one such object — a gold coffin taken from Egypt during the protests in 2011. The coffin made its way through the United Arab Emirates, Germany, and France before the Met purchased it in 2017 for almost $4 million. In 2019, the Manhattan district attorney’s office seized the coffin from one of the museum’s galleries, where it was on display; no one connected to the Met faced charges.
“The Met is a victim of an international criminal organization, currently under ongoing investigation in multiple jurisdictions,” a spokesperson for the museum told Hyperallergic in an email. “Throughout this investigation, the Met has been fully cooperative, and will continue to be so. The Museum’s employees were deceived by this criminal conspiracy.”
The Met spokesperson told Hyperallergic that since the incident, the museum has updated its collection management policy to require more rigorous vetting of provenance, including contact with source countries.
The Louvre Museum and the Paris prosecutor’s office have not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.