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Former Louvre president charged in art trafficking case

The Mona Lisa at the Louvre museum in Paris in 2020. (Christophe Ena/AP)
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A French court on Wednesday charged the former head of the Louvre museum in Paris with fraud in connection with his alleged role in trafficking millions of dollars’ worth of art.

Jean-Luc Martinez, who has denied any wrongdoing, stands accused of “complicity in fraud” and “false facilitation of the ‘origin of property derived from a crime or misdemeanor,’” a French judicial official, commenting on the condition of anonymity as a matter of court policy, told The Washington Post in an email.

Martinez allegedly ignored documents falsifying the origins of several Egyptian antiquities sold for $8.5 million in 2016 to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, according to the French newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné, which broke the story.

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Among the artifacts in question is a pink granite stele bearing the seal of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen. The tall stone slab includes a decree by Tutankhamen guaranteeing the protection of a high priest and dates to 1327 B.C.

Martinez ran the Paris Louvre from 2013 until last year. He now serves as the French Foreign Ministry’s ambassador in charge of international cooperation on cultural heritage, a role that includes working to prevent art trafficking.

French authorities, who opened the case in 2018, detained two specialists along with Martinez. Both have been released without charges, the French judicial official said.

In March, French officials arrested German Lebanese gallery owner Roben Dib, who brokered the deals in question. Dib is a suspect in several other cases, including in the sale of a stolen ancient Egyptian stele to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The city later returned the stele to Egypt.

French investigators suspect hundreds of artifacts were stolen from Egypt and throughout the Middle East during the upheaval of the 2011 Arab Spring.

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The Louvre Abu Dhabi did not respond immediately to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the Louvre in Paris declined to comment.

The two museums share a name but are separate institutions.

The French state owns the Louvre in Paris, which is the world’s most visited museum. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is owned by the United Arab Emirates, which opened the museum in 2017 under a partnership with France.

The deal included the UAE leasing the Louvre name from France for 30 years at a cost of some $500 million.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi told the BBC it could not comment on the ongoing investigation.

“Louvre Abu Dhabi applies a strict international protocol for artworks entering the collection, as outlined in the intergovernmental agreement between Abu Dhabi and France, signed in 2007,” the museum told the BBC in a statement. “This protocol is strictly aligned with the 1970 Unesco Convention [against the illicit trafficking of cultural artifacts] and follows the most stringent standards of major museums in the world.”

Rick Noack in Paris contributed to this report.