Summary: an international investigation into an art trafficking ring has entangled several leading museums including the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island – the so-called “Island of Happiness” – in the United Arab Emirates was inaugurated by President Emmanuel Macron, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed and the Emir of Dubai Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum on November 8, 2017. Quickly it became a success, welcoming more than one million visitors after the first full year of operations and by 2019 two million, making it the most visited museum in the Arab world.
Critics pointed to the UAE’s human rights record, the imprisonment of peaceful government critics and its involvement in the Yemen war. Before being banned from the country in 2014 Human Rights Watch published three reports on construction sites of Saadiyat Island, including one on the Louvre Abu Dhabi itself, documenting a wide range of human rights violations by employers, made worse by the kafala system and a toxic mix of exorbitant recruitment fees and the prohibition of trade unions.
During the ten years it took to build the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the UAE authorities were desperate to purchase as many artworks as they could in order to fill up the new museum and reduce their dependence on loaned artworks from Paris. 600 pieces are currently on permanent display in the Louvre Abu Dhabi and a further 300 are loaned from France. To try and meet this demand, as Arab Digest has previously reported UAE diplomats became involved in smuggling antiquities from Egypt and around the world.
Then in May this year a fresh scandal exploded, rocking the art world and casting a new shadow over the Louvre deal when the director of the Paris Louvre Jean-Luc Martinez was indicted by French police for “complicity of gang fraud and laundering“ of objects purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Louvre Abu Dhabi. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Besides heading the Louvre in Paris, Martinez was also president of the scientific committee at Agence France-Muséums or AFM which lies at the heart of the unfolding scandal. AFM is a private French company created in order to advise the Louvre Abu Dhabi on selecting objects for purchase and authenticating their legal origin. Its largest public shareholder is the Louvre Museum. Besides giving Martinez great influence over what the Louvre Abu Dhabi purchased, this means he would also have taken a commission on each one.
Now according to Libération French investigators have found that AFM, under pressure to fill the new museum as quickly as possible, showed signs of “real professional negligence,” “transgression of deontological rules,” and “failures”. As a result AFM repeatedly dismissed warning signs and failed to follow through with the verification of artefacts.
Among those failures was one occasion when a member of the AFM’s archaeology department expressed “ethical” concerns about possible human remains inside the funeral set of the Egyptian Princess Henuttawy and said further analysis was needed.
The AFM ignored him and signed off on the sale anyway in 2014, for €4.5 million (GBP3.8 million) to the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
The set is currently on display in the permanent collection.
An expert later told France’s Central Office for the Fight against illegal Trafficking in Cultural Goods (OCBC) that the contents of the sarcophagi had indeed contained human remains which had been conserved in an “indecent” and “abnormal” manner. The OCBC has also said fake documents were used to certify the set’s export from Egypt to Germany, and that it was smuggled out of Egypt in 2013.
Another smuggled relic Martinez is accused of having signed off on is a pink granite stele engraved with the name of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun. The stele was bought by the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2016 for €8.5 million [GBP7.2 million] with the approval of the Louvre in Paris and Agence France-Muséums. But when the same stele was offered for sale to the Louvre in Paris, the museum declined, after its Egyptian antiquities curator noted that it came from an area of Egypt that was pillaged in the 1980s.
USA Art News reported last month that a French Tutankhamen specialist named Marc Gabolde raised several concerns about the stele’s provenance with staff at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, but his colleagues thought the points he raised “were inconvenient and unpleasant for the bloodline of the stele.”
The international investigation into the art trafficking ring is very much ongoing. In May the Manhattan District Attorney’s office confiscated five Egyptian artefacts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. French police are reportedly planning to travel to New York soon to exchange information with Matthew Bogdanos, the head of the trafficking antiquities unit there. Bogdanos has been investigating members of the same art trafficking ring since 2018 when Kim Kardsahian accidentally uncovered a stolen golden sarcophagus there during the Met Gala.
The question now is not just what else the investigation throws up, but whether the scandal that has already been revealed can be contained just in the art world, because unofficially the deal between France and UAE over the Louvre has always been about much more than culture.
Martinez allowed the “Louvre” brand to be used for much wider commercial purposes in the UAE than activities linked to the museum, for example a luxury real estate project overlooking the museum called “Louvre Residences”. And last December, when the Louvre Abu Dhabi cooperation agreement was extended ten years until 2047 Paris announced shortly afterwards the sale to the Emirates of 80 Rafale warplanes in a contract worth 16 billion euros, the largest ever such overseas sale for France.
Last month the Louvre Abu Dhabi issued a statement to Khaleej Times confirming it has become a civil party in the ongoing French investigations. Its lawyers say it operates to the highest ethical standards and is an innocent victim of the trafficking network too. To show it complies with the rules of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) the Louvre Abu Dhabi will probably have to return the Tutankhamun stele, Princess Henuttawy’s funeral set and other pieces to Egypt soon.
But for the Louvre brand worldwide the damage has already been done. Whatever it says now, the petrodollars it took in exchange for providing a sheen of high-end respectability to the UAE regime has ended up backfiring and tarnishing its reputation. Not for the first time Western art and culture put into the service of Gulf money and power with the aim of ‘civilising’ the Arab world has ended up having exactly the reverse effect.