The investigation into the alleged traffic of large quantities of antiquities from the Middle East took a dramatic turn in Paris earlier this week when the former director of the Louvre, Jean-Luc Martinez, was taken in for questioning by French police on Monday morning.
According to a source close to the investigation, Martinez was interviewed by the French office against art trafficking (OCBC) along with the head of the Egyptian department of the Louvre, Vincent Rondot, and Olivier Perdu, a renowned Egyptologist. Perdu was released on Tuesday night without charge. He told The Art Newspaper that he had only been questioned because the Revue d’Egyptologie he edits for the French Egyptologists’ Society “published a scientific paper in 2019 on the historical importance of a stele which was sold to the Louvre Abu Dhabi”. He was, he says, “completely exonerated of any wrongdoing”.
At the time of writing, Martinez remained in custody—though he has not been accused of any wrongdoing. An official government source confirmed the facts, but says that the Louvre Museum and the government would only consider making a comment after their release. Martinez previously told The Art Newspaper that he denies any wrongdoing.
The news follows the arrest in Paris of a German-Lebanese dealer, Roben Dib, who has been detained since March on charges of gang fraud and money laundering. Interviewed two years ago in Hamburg, he denied all allegations of art trafficking.
In June 2020, the French judge Jean-Michel Gentil charged the Parisian expert and dealer Christophe Kunicki with criminal conspiracy, gang fraud and laundering. The Parisian headquarters of the French agency for the Louvre Abu Dhabi was raided at the time and documents seized by the OCBC. According to the satirical newspaper, Canard enchaîné, the French investigators plan to travel to New York to exchange information with Matthew Bogdanos, the head of the trafficking antiquities unit at the District Attorney’s office, who has been investigating a trafficking ring since 2013.
Kunicki, who has also denied any wrongdoing when previously questioned by The Art Newspaper, sold a golden sarcophagus to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for €3.5m in 2017, which was subsequently seized by the District Attorney and returned to Egypt. Criminal investigations in France and the US, which extended to Germany, the UK and Dubai, are now focusing on nine other objects purchased by the Metropolitan and the Louvre Abu Dhabi for a total of more than €50m from Kunicki and Dib, according to a source close to the investigation. A spokesperson of the New York Museum declined to comment on the specifics, but says that its “employees were deceived by this criminal conspiracy and the museum has been fully co-operative throughout this investigation and will continue to be so”.
None of these items were sold to the Louvre Museum in Paris. But, since the launch of the project in 2007, acquisitions by the Emirati museum, with the help of French expertise, must be approved by a joint commission, co-chaired by the Louvre director. Martinez was director of the Louvre from 2013 to 2021. He has since been appointed special ambassador for international co-operation on cultural heritage and is currently working on a report on restitutions to African countries.