The owner of Christie’s continues his battle to have a statue that he bought declared a fake

The statue of Pharaoh Sesostris III has already been deemed authentic in the Pinault's two lost lawsuits


François Pinault owns Christie’s. He and his wife, Maryvonne, also own the controversial Egyptian statue of Sesostris III which they bought at Drouot in 1998. They have now published a scientific analysis of the statue carried out at their request by Laboratoire Maurer. This new report concludes that the statue was made recently, reviving the debate about its authenticity.

The Egyptian statue of the Pharaoh Sesostris III was bought at Drouot by the Pinaults on 10 November 1998 for some €770,000 (about £500,000; $800,000). The chief curator of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, Professor Dietrich Wildung, cast doubt on its authenticity, causing the purchasers to seek the legal annulment of the sale. A legal examination carried out by two specialists from the Louvre, Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt and Elisabeth Delange, concluded that the piece was an unique masterpiece and was a posthumous image of Sesostris III made at the end of the Middle Empire, a few decades after the Pharaoh’s death. The Paris court rejected the request to have the sale annulled, on 31 January 2001, and again at appeal on 25 March 2002.

Since then the affair seemed to have been settled, but the tenacity of the collectors has to be taken into account. On their initiative, the sculpture was submitted to closer examination in the French ASA laboratory run by Francine Maurer, who specialises in applied research for art and archaeology, authenticating and dating objects by scientific methods.

The examination consisted of a microanalysis, plus interpretation of the traces left by the tools used to create the sculpture; these traces provide a clue to its date. At least 42 areas of the sculpture were studied. The analysis led to the conclusion that “traces left by modern tools are by far the most frequent on the sculpture”. Detailed study showed these traces in “the chiselling on the lower face of the plinth; the hammering and/or chiselling on the flat planes of the plinth; the fine scratches on the body of the Pharaoh; the fine dots on the folds of the hairstyle and on the rounded pleats of the loincloth; the deep incisions in the anatomical details, eyes, nipples, finger nails; the engraving on the necklace, the hieroglyphs on the belt and some partially obliterated inscriptions.” Other fine lines reveal the use of a diamond cutter. Others correspond to more traditional methods and are made with metal or stone tools. According to the laboratory report, “these different characteristics lead us to conclude that the sculpture is of modern manufacture”.

The specialist at the sale, Chakib Slitine, says, “This proves nothing. The surface of the stone was altered when the sculpture was repolished all over. Anyway, judgment has been passed and there is nothing more to say.”

This is the whole problem for the Pinaults, who have already lost twice in the courts. The report published by the two specialists from the Louvre is based on no such scientific analysis. With this in mind, it is interesting to note the statement made by Mme Desroches-Noblecourt and Mme Delange to Maître Jean-Luc Gauzère (the Pinaults’ lawyer) on 10 March 2000, just after the report had been submitted: “We should remember that it is almost impossible today to carry out an analysis on a metamorphic stone in order to determine its date.” A few lines further on they add: “Can the competence of two such seasoned Egyptologists be challenged?”

It can indeed, if the Pinaults have anything to do with it. As well as commissioning the scientific analysis, they also requested the archaeologist Luc Watrin to make a careful study of the anthropometric, stylistic and epigraphic aspects of Sesostris III. The Egyptologist, whose research pointing to it being a modern fake had been rejected by the Paris appeal court, is pursuing this investigation now.

The Pinaults know that the study by Laboratoire Maurer cannot stand up in court, but, using its findings, they hope to relaunch the debate and get the result of the court case reversed (a very difficult procedure in France). They hope the tribunal will recommend another laboratory which will carry out a legal scientific examination of the piece. This is the method they used on the Boulle table (see below).

It might be worth asking, however, why they have not suggested that the sculpture be donated to the Louvre as a dation (in lieu of death duties)? It is no secret that the Pinaults were advised to do this by the museum at the time of the purchase. Even if they no longer believe in the authenticity of Sesostris III, the Musée du Louvre could not refuse such a gift after having written such a glowing report about it.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Sesostris III–return of the Pharaoh'