Op-Ed: A Robbery of Artistic Proportions: How the Louvre is Complicit in the Looting of Middle Eastern Treasures

Photo Credit: DBUK

By Audrey Hall
Managing Editor

The Musee du Louvre, the world’s most visited museum located in the center of Paris, has come under severe scrutiny as former Louvre President Jean-Luc Martinez has been charged with money laundering and alleged art trafficking. Martinez is said to have accepted falsified certificates of origin for several archaeological treasures that investigators suspect were smuggled out of Egypt during the Arab Spring. Although Martinez is no longer at the forefront of the Louvre, he now works in the field of heritage as an ambassador for international cooperation. As Martinez continues to serve in the public eye, the allegations threaten to embarrass the French culture ministry and the ministry of foreign affairs.

The Arab Spring marked a period of political chaos spanning North Africa and the Middle East in which pro-democracy protests and armed rebellions lasted over two years. During the pandemonium, political instability created numerous opportunities for looters to dismantle and steal precious works of art. Brandon Lorimer, an esteemed art critic stated, “the reprehensible practice has particularly flourished in the Middle East and North Africa during the chaos that followed the Arab Spring.” The pressure is now on for museums to return the valuable artifacts and historical pieces that were looted from the region during this time.

“Archaeological looting” or “antique looting” has been around since the origin of art itself. Interestingly, Egypt has taken the brunt of this looting, as the vast surrounding desert landscape facilitates such thievery, and political instability combined with low levels of tourism allows for gaps in surveillance and a lack of overall monitoring levels. Aside from corruption, art patrons are notoriously wealthy, and according to Gareth Harris, the Chief Contributing Editor of The Art Newspaper, “Many of Egypt’s business tycoons and mega art collectors are either on trial, in jail, or have escaped following accusations of illicit financial gains.” This combination creates opportunities for thieves to easily enter the country, loot valuables, and flee without serious risk of capture or legal repercussions. Egypt experienced large amounts of history dug from its soil (literally) in recent years. According to journalist Megan Gannon, scientists have been using satellites to monitor pyramids, tombs, and buried cities dating back to 2002 and have reported massive holes along the Egyptian desert marking open looting. Although Egypt has experienced the worst of the thievery, other countries such as Libya, Yemen, and Syria have also experienced such artistic loss. It is paramount to enforce tangible consequences on those such as Martinez who have willingly turned a blind eye. 

The allegations announced on May 25 have been long-coming. The case was initially opened in 2018 by French investigators after the Louvre’s branch in Abu Dhabi bought a rare, pink granite stele portraying the pharaoh Tutankhamun, as well as four other historic pieces costing millions of euros. Investigators suspect that hundreds of antiques were pillaged during the span of the Arab Spring and that many were sold to galleries and museums that did not properly vet their origins. The Martinez indictment follows the March 2022 arrest of German-Lebanese dealer Roben Dib on suspicion of involvement with the sale of looted artworks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Martinez similarly came under suspicion during the purchase of rare pieces at the Abu Dhabi branch of the Louvre. Dib is suspected to be connected to the French art dealer Christophe Kunicki, who in 2020 was arrested and charged with trafficking looted objects from Egypt and the Middle East. During that previous investigation, it was discovered that the objects had passed through Dib, who had been supplying Kunicki for over a decade. According to Art Forum, “Martinez is suspected of having approved the purchase of multiple antiquities from both Dib and Kunicki despite being aware that the objects were stolen: Both Dib and Kunicki have denied wrongdoing and have contended that the items in question were legally obtained.” These previous events leave Martinez and his legal team in an uphill battle to prove his innocence. 

As the case unfolds, the world waits in awe of this ongoing crisis and shameful piece of history. There will likely be diplomatic and political repercussions from this patronage. Due to the state of the Egyptian economy, citizens are understandably more concerned about food prices than with looted art being returned. While the outcry among the Egyptian public may be faint, many art connoisseurs and elites have loudly rebuked the Louvre and other large museums. Reclaiming their artifacts and the history they embody will be an onerous challenge for an entourage of states struggling from economic strains and the lingering political unrest and consequences of the Arab Spring, but is the only way to see that justice is brought to this important cause.

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