The art world was stunned last week when Jean-Luc Martinez, a former director of the Louvre, was charged with “complicity of gang fraud and laundering,” regarding the purchase of allegedly looted antiquities for the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s permanent collection.
Then, the Louvre announced Monday it had petitioned to join the criminal investigation as a civil party, which could allow the Paris museum to receive monetary damages if there is a ruling in its favor that it was directly harmed by the alleged trafficking ring.
The international investigation currently involves the $56 million sale of objects to the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Metropolitan Museum of Art between 2013 and 2017.
But, as more details come to light, one scholar appears to have played an outsized role: Marc Gabolde, a French specialist on ancient Egypt and professor at Paul Valéry University of Montpellier. Gabolde, who has gained notoriety for investigating missing Egyptian artifacts, informed the Louvre years ago about the murky provenance of one object.
In 2018, Gabolde—an expert on the young pharaoh Tutankhamun—began researching an unusually well-preserved rose granite stele depicting the pharaoh, made not long before he died around 1318 B.C.E. The stele, now at the heart of the investigation implicating Martinez, had been purchased by the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2016 for €8.5 million, with the approval of the Louvre in Paris and Agence France-Muséums, which manages France’s top public museums.
At that time, Martinez ran the Louvre and was president of the Agence France-Muséums’s scientific committee, which was charged with authenticating the provenance of artworks up for acquisition by the Louvre Abu Dhabi. He remained in both positions until last year.
By 2019, Gabolde had compiled several red flags pointing toward the stele’s questionable origins. The primary indicator was that the object was once held by Egyptian merchant Habib Tawadros in the 1930s. Tawadros is also connected to the golden sarcophagus of Egyptian priest Nedjemankh, purchased by the Met in 2017 that was seized by U.S. authorities and returned to Egypt in 2019.
“That alarmed me,” Gabolde told the OCBC in 2021, according to the French daily Libération, which obtained a copy of Gabolde’s deposition.
A Warning, But No ‘Conclusive’ Proof
Gabolde shared his initial conclusions with Vincent Rondot, the head of the Louvre’s Egyptian department; Olivier Perdu, editor of Revue d’Egyptologie, with whom he was due to publish an article on the stele; and Martinez.
In researching the stele, Gabolde compiled a list of objects believed to have been held 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 considered “the results of the investigation were uncomfortable and bothersome for the stele’s pedigree,” Gabolde said.
Ultimately, Gabolde’s findings of the stele’s origins “were not conclusive,” Perdu told ARTnews, a characterization that Gabolde agreed with. Further, Perdu said that, at the time, he saw “no element that allowed me to be convinced of the fraudulent origins of the stele.”
Gabolde asked the Louvre Abu Dhabi to provide Tawadros’s receipt, but they instead provided other information that Gabolde found “unreliable (to put it mildly),” he said. To publish the Revue article, Gabolde needed consent from the museum.
“I proposed not putting anything about provenance in the article, which seemed to satisfy everyone,” Gabolde said.
Perdu said that he advised Gabolde to not mention possible issues with provenance without proof, but that “if he is convinced that the object is of suspicious or illicit origin, he must not publish his article.”
Some suspicions are common when attempting to piece together the origins of unknown, ancient artworks, explained Perdu. But proof is critical and sometimes elusive.
“It’s only now—and rightly so—that we worry more about the origin of [art] objects. When I started my work as an Egyptologist, nobody cared at all about an object’s pedigree … with the result that a lot of objects appear without a pedigree. That’s a real problem,” Perdu said.
Gabolde’s final report on the stele was published in Revue in 2019. It did not include his research about its export from Egypt or any mention of Tawadros or Behrens. (He declined to share with ARTnews the unpublished investigation he had shared with Rondot, Perdu, and Martinez.)
Now, the French satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchainé, and other French reports with access to legal documents, say Martinez is accused of dismissing Gabolde’s findings, and possibly other evidence of illicit origins, which could make him complicit in fraud and money laundering.
Perdu and Rondot were questioned by France’s Central Bureau for Combatting Trafficking of Cultural Property (OCBC), under the leadership of investigating judge Jean-Michel Gentil, but the two have not been charged with wrongdoing and were ultimately released.
Once Gabolde shared his research with Martinez, Perdu, and Rondot, the museum had the opportunity to take it further, he said.
“I thought that if they wanted to pursue the investigation to confirm or discredit the pedigree, my notes on its provenance could be useful elements, which could also be transmitted to official investigators,” he said.
That appears to have never happened.
Ties To Another Major Investigation
The French newspaper Libération reported on May 26 that no less than seven forged documents had been used to sell the stele in the past. In addition, it found that the stele and several other Egyptian antiques purchased by the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Met were all sold by French dealer Christophe Kunicki, the expert who headed the archaeology department at the prestigious Paris auction house Pierre Bergé & Associates.
Kunicki was charged with criminal conspiracy, gang fraud, and laundering in 2020, though he has maintained his innocence. However, in March, Pierre Bergé & Associates was charged with “complicity in fraud as part of an organized group” and “laundering,” for allowing the authentication and sale of several stolen archaeological works.
The auction house is “one of the most important vectors for this form of illicit traffic,” the OCBC stated in its report, according to a Libération article, published Tuesday.
For nearly 15 years, Kunicki served as certifying expert of archaeological works at Pierre Bergé, as well as its supplier of ancient works, for which he earned a commission.
Kunicki bought many of the suspect artworks from the German-Lebanese dealer Roben Dib, based in Hamburg, now considered an “eminent member of this criminal organization,” according to the same OCBC report. Dib was arrested in March on charges of gang fraud and money laundering.
Libération also identified another supplier to Kunicki named Ayad K., who is known to Swiss authorities for possessing archaeological objects pillaged from Yemen and Iraq.
To date, the head of Pierre Bergé & Associates, Antoine Godeau, who was questioned by police in June 2020, has not been charged with any crime.
Gabolde, for his part, does not blame his fellow experts. “The curators, Egyptologists, and Egypt are victims, not accomplices in this affair,” Gabolde told ARTnews in an email.
A Louvre spokesperson said Rondot declined to comment. Martinez’ lawyers have issued a statement contesting his indictment and insisting on “his good faith.”