The former director of the Louvre, Jean-Luc Martinez, was charged on Wednesday night, the latest revelation of the investigation into the alleged traffic of antiquities from the Middle East. According to an official legal source, Martinez has been charged with “complicity of gang fraud and laundering“ of antiquities allegedly smuggled from Egypt and purchased by the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Martinez, who has become France's special ambassador for cooperation on cultural heritage and is supposed to deliver a report to President Emmanuel Macron on restitutions to African countries, has been placed under judicial control.
Martinez was detained and interviewed over three days by the French office against art trafficking (OCBC). The head of the Egyptian department of the Louvre, Vincent Rondot, and Olivier Perdu, a renowned Egyptologist, were also held for questioning but were released without charges. Perdu 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”. Since the launch of the Abu Dhabi project in 2007, acquisitions by the Emirati museum, made with the help of French expertise, have required approval from a joint commission co-chaired by the Louvre director. Martinez was director of the Louvre from 2013 to 2021.
According to a source close to the investigation, Martinez is blamed for not having paid enough attention to the doubts expressed by the author of the Revue’s article, Marc Gabolde from the University of Montpellier, about the conditions of export of a stele in 1933 by an officer of the German navy. However, Gabolde told the publication Sciences et Avenir that he is convinced that “egyptologists and curators were cheated by thugs and were not accomplices of the traffickers, but their victims“.
Martinez did not want to comment Thursday, but in previous conversations he denied any wrongdoing in the management of the acquisitions of the Louvre Dhabi. The French culture and foreign affairs ministries say they can not make any comment on an ongoing investigation, which is led by an independent judge.
The charges against Martinez follow the arrest in Paris of a German-Lebanese dealer, Roben Dib, who has been detained since March for gang fraud and money laundering. Interviewed by The Art Newspaper 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 DA Cyrus Vance 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 Met 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 for 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 cooperative throughout this investigation and will continue to be so”.