Vol. 45 No. 19 · 5 October 2023

The Ostrich Defence

Azadeh Moaveni on the trade in stolen antiquities

7722 words

In November​ 2017, Marc Gabolde, an Egyptologist at Paul Valéry University in Montpellier, received a grainy photograph on his phone from a colleague attending the opening party for the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The picture showed a pink granite stele on display at the museum. Had Gabolde seen it before? If not, what did he think? The stele was dated to 1327 BCE and came from Abydos, a sacred city on the upper banks of the Nile. From what Gabolde could see, the stele appeared to be perfectly preserved. Its reliefs suggested that it belonged to the reign of Tutankhamun and, he noted, unlike on most of Tutankhamun’s monuments, the cartouches were intact. ‘My first reaction was that it was probably a forgery,’ Gabolde told me. ‘It was too nice to be true.’

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, first conceived in 2005, has undertaken the greatest antiquities spending spree in at least two generations. The Emiratis are paying the Louvre more than a billion dollars for its name, expertise and crucial loans that support the museum’s nascent collection. The building was designed by Jean Nouvel, the architect behind the Musée Quai Branly, and the opening ceremony was a grand spectacle, with fireworks and light effects that reflected in the museum’s grid of canals. Artefacts from the collection appeared to rise out of the inky water, while the museum’s ‘Arabic-Galactic wonder dome’, as the New York Times put it, glittered above. Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron attended, as well as President bin Zayed, Sheikh Mohammad of Dubai and the kings of Morocco and Bahrain.

In Montpellier, Gabolde studied the text on the stele. It was a decree granting Raya, a high priest in the Temple of Osiris, royal protection, and Gabolde concluded it was almost certainly genuine. Tutankhamun reigned for only a decade. Despite the many investigations conducted on his mummified body, knowledge about his rule is limited. We still don’t know whether or not Nefertiti was his mother, or what caused his death at the age of nineteen, or what drove him to reverse his father’s decision to worship the god Aten, a sun deity, and return Egyptians to the cult of Amun. Gabolde was eager to decipher any clues the decree might hold and applied to the Louvre Abu Dhabi as well as to a leading journal of Egyptology to research the stele and publish his discoveries. He also asked about the stele’s provenance.

It was three months before he heard anything. In April 2018, an official at Agence France-Muséums, the entity set up by the French government to handle loans and acquisitions for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, finally replied to Gabolde. He explained that the stele originated from the collection of Johannes Behrens, a German merchant navy officer, who had bought it in Cairo in 1933 from a dealer called Habib Tawadros. Gabolde was intrigued. At the time, only a tiny number of wealthy Egyptian traders had amassed significant collections, and their identities and holdings are well known. When Gabolde investigated, he found some wispy ‘not very reliable’ references suggesting that a dealer called Tawadros may have existed, and that he may have had a shop near Shepheard’s Hotel – previously the Hotel des Anglais, where spies and German generals used to gather. But there were no photographs or any other evidence of Tawadros and his shop.

The stele was allegedly bought by a Paris dealer from Behrens’s heirs in 2000 and spent years in storerooms until it was purchased by the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2016. Gabolde was sceptical. He found it ‘nearly impossible that so important an object would have remained unknown and hidden’ for almost seventy years. Tawadros was said to have sold the stele just a decade after Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, and just eight years after he revealed the gold funerary mask. These were global events. Audiences in both Cairo and London were enthralled by the excavation. The Times managed to secure an exclusive deal for press access. Carter’s imperious handling of the tomb, his preferment of a British newspaper and his habit of taking visiting British aristocrats to the site while fobbing off Egyptian officials had inflamed the authorities in Cairo as well as the Egyptian public. For a time, the Egyptians sealed the vault and locked Carter out. The idea that the stele could have gone unremarked and unrecorded at the time, sold by an ‘almost completely unknown collector’, was fanciful.

The identity of the alleged buyer, Johannes Behrens, was no more convincing. ‘I don’t know what the income of a German merchant navy officer was in 1933, the year Hitler came to power during the Great Depression,’ Gabolde told me, ‘but I strongly doubt that he could have bought such a masterpiece.’ Gabolde asked the curators in Abu Dhabi and Agence France-Muséums for a copy of the acquisition receipt from 2000, but received no reply. More than a dozen Johannes Behrenses appear in German public records. At least two were attached to the German military, one a musketeer who died during the First World War and another who served as a colonel in the Third Reich. But neither was a navy captain or had any association with antiquities. Gabolde began to wonder whether it was all a complete fiction.

Reporting​ on antiquities looting in recent years has often focused on the political upheavals that began with the Arab Spring. In the West, this has sometimes been accompanied by the suggestion that the region’s Islamist movements – the main forces in nearly every part of the region agitating for change – are inherently violent. Secular dictatorships and extremists in the region skilfully played on the same trope. When the Cairo Museum was raided in 2011 during the Tahrir Square revolution, there were fears that the anti-Mubarak protesters were descending into hooliganism. Many analysts now believe it was an inside job by the Egyptian army to discredit its opponents. When, in 2014, Isis blew up al-Nabi Younus mosque in Mosul, which housed the tomb of the prophet Jonah, the leadership claimed the aim was to destroy gravestones, which are considered heretical by the Wahhabi sect of Islam. Isis filmed and released videos of its fighters taking sledgehammers to artefacts at the Mosul Museum and dynamiting ziggurats at Nimrud. ‘When God orders us to remove and destroy idols,’ a fighter says in the Mosul video, ‘it is easy for us and we don’t care, even if they cost millions of dollars.’ Idol-smashing became a popular genre in Isis videos. The Western media covered these events with the fervour that Isis expected, obscuring the crude excavations, industrial-scale looting and trafficking that the group was conducting behind the scenes.

The Isis Antiquities Division, an official unit, raised millions of dollars to finance the group’s operations. At its height, the Islamic State presided over a third of Iraq as well as areas of Libya and Syria rich in ancient ruins, including at least ten Unesco World Heritage sites. In Syria, opposition groups sponsored by the US and Gulf patrons also dabbled in the trade. When I spent time in Syria and Turkey reporting on Isis, rebel commanders would pull out their mobile phones at dinner to show me images of antiquities – antique prayer beads, egg-shaped carvings – which they had at home, sometimes asking what the peculiar objects could be. ‘You really should be focusing on antiquities,’ one commander told me.

There is disagreement among terror financing experts and archaeologists over how much income Isis generated from the traffic in antiquities: reliable data is hard to come by. But the suspicion that it was a significant sum has encouraged reform in the world of dealing and collecting, which even a decade ago remained reckless and often indifferent to questions of provenance. If wealthy collectors weren’t moved to protect the cultural heritage of countries at war, maybe the implication that they were funding Isis would check their indifference. Organisations such as the Clooney Foundation for Justice commissioned reports illustrating the use of looted antiquities to finance war crimes and terrorism, pointing out that criminal antiquities dealers may move many illicit goods at once: arms, people and wildlife as well as precious artefacts. The Somali jihadist group al-Shabaab exported ivory to China to help finance its activities, which included the attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi that killed 71 people.

Artefacts originating in Isis-controlled regions streamed onto the global market, where demand was as high as ever. Smaller pieces were sold illicitly on Facebook and eBay, while more significant items appeared at the seasonal auctions. Evangelical Christians in the US were so greedy for Judeo-Christian artefacts that they formed a market of their own. The Green family, owners of the Hobby Lobby chain, went on a post-Arab Spring collecting frenzy to fill their Museum of the Bible in Washington DC. In 2017 the museum was forced to hand back 3600 cuneiform tablets that had been smuggled out of Iraq, and in 2020 it relinquished another 11,500 artefacts – papyrus, Bible fragments, tablets imprinted with passages from the Epic of Gilgamesh – to Iraq and Egypt. Individual billionaire collectors in the tradition of Arthur Sackler, most of them based in New York (where by far the greatest share of wealth in the antiquities market is exchanged), continued to buy.

Remarkably little has changed in the global political economy of antiquities extraction since the mid-19th century, when colonial archaeologists began excavating the ancient treasures of Egyptian, Persian and Iraqi civilisations and shipping them back to Western capitals. Then, as now, the flow is mostly from indebted and politically weak countries of the Global South to the economically advanced and well-secured North. The chief weapons designed to deal with this trafficking, various national patrimony laws and UN covenants, have done little to change things. Regulation is effectively non-existent. Origin states, with the exception of Greece and Italy, lack the wherewithal and resources to protect their heritage. Destination countries have historically lacked incentive. Antiquities remain, with the possible exception of wildlife, the only illicit commodity that transnational criminal gangs can trade on the open market. You can’t buy or sell people, drugs or weapons on eBay or at international auction houses. The authors of Trafficking Culture (2019), a useful treatise on antiquities trafficking, write that ‘the Metropolitan Museum of Art is not in a position to spend $1 million on fifty kilos of trafficked cocaine, to put it on display, to then defend the purchase in the newspapers as a “public good”, and only turn the cocaine over to the authorities thirty years later without facing punishment.’ This was the fate of the Euphronios Krater, an ancient Greek vase that was illegally dug up by Italian tomb robbers in 1971, bought by the Met in 1972, and returned by the museum to Rome in 2008 after years of dogged investigation by the Italian authorities.

The laws that states use to pursue stolen antiquities are best suited to one-off reappropriations. Because criminal proceedings are rarely brought against those involved, there is little deterrent. What has made a difference in the museum world is public protest and the prospect of reputational damage. Nan Goldin’s campaign against the Sackler family pushed several major institutions to stop taking their money and to remove the Sackler name from wings or galleries they had funded. In 2020 the Congolese activist Mwazulu Diyabanza livestreamed videos of himself walking through a number of French museums and pointing out African artefacts seized by colonialists. Macron promised to return some items to former colonies in 2017 but the process has been chequered and slow. Diyabanza’s ‘active diplomacy’ aims to advance these reckonings, not just in France, but in countries including Britain and Belgium.

The theme​ of the 2018 Met Gala was ‘Heavenly Bodies’. Dozens of celebrities turned up in cardinal robes and crusader frocks, among them Sarah Jessica Parker, who wore a nativity scene headdress, and Gigi Hadid, who came as a stained-glass window. Kim Kardashian arrived in a gilded chainmail sheath by Atelier Versace studded with crosses. But the most opulent get-up was that of Nedjemankh, an Egyptian priest who lived in the first century BCE and whose golden coffin was the centrepiece of a major exhibition. The Met displayed Nedjemankh’s coffin upright, giving him the appearance of a bemused and gloriously dressed attendee. Kardashian posed beside him for a ‘who wore it best’ picture, which ricocheted around the internet.

Thousands of miles away, an Egyptian looter scrolling through a celebrity gossip website on his smartphone saw the picture. He recognised Nedjemankh instantly: he and his colleagues had dug the golden coffin out of the ground six years earlier, without bothering to preserve the priest’s mummified body. The arrangement they had struck with the dealer was that payment would be made when the coffin’s final sale was completed. But the dealer kept fobbing him off. Now it was evident that Nedjemankh had been sold, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art no less, and still the looter hadn’t received his cut. Furious, he called a dealer friend to complain. That man turned out to be an informer for the Manhattan district attorney’s antiquities trafficking unit. He promptly called Matthew Bogdanos, the head of the unit, to relay the tip: Nedjemankh was freshly looted and had been removed from Egypt illegally.

Bogdanos spent the rest of 2018 running a grand jury investigation into the Met’s acquisition. For years he had been on the trail of a powerful and sophisticated antiquities smuggling network that operated with impunity across the Middle East, Europe and the United States. In 2013 he had received a tranche of email traffic between the ring’s dealers, looters and smugglers, discussing newly excavated antiquities. Among the people involved were Lebanese and Egyptian traffickers, some of Armenian origin, with roots in Beirut and Cairo, and long-standing perches in Hamburg and Los Angeles. Pictures of Nedjemankh’s coffin appeared in those emails, caked in dirt and barely recognisable.

Bogdanos is a former marine with degrees in law and classics. While serving with the US military in Iraq in 2003 he was assigned to the contingent that secured the national museum. He spent nine months sleeping on the floor of the library cataloguing thousands of missing items and managed to track down several thousand artefacts. On returning to the DA’s office in 2010, he tried to persuade his bosses to start taking antiquities trafficking more seriously. Just because the criminals were wealthy and wore Italian suits, he argued, didn’t make them any less destructive than looters in downtown Baghdad or the streets of Kabul. He cultivated sources, found sympathetic colleagues in law enforcement and UN agencies, mapped networks and amassed evidence. In 2021 he brought down the billionaire New York collector Michael Steinhardt, a hedge fund manager also accused of sexual harassment by several women, who admitted that buying risky objects was ‘like an addiction’. Bogdanos raided his Fifth Avenue apartment and seized 180 stolen objects valued at $70 million. Steinhardt agreed to a deal that forced him to surrender all the items and banned him for life from collecting antiquities. In the same year, Bogdanos pursued another inveterate and controversial collector, the philanthropist Shelby White, who had sat on the board of the Met for 33 years and populated the museum’s collections with her loans. Attorneys showed up at her apartment at 6 a.m. and carted away dozens of presumably looted antiquities.

When Bogdanos’s investigators looked into the Met’s acquisition process for Nedjemankh, they found instance after instance of credulity-straining sloppiness. In May 2016, Diana Craig Patch, the Met’s curator for Egyptian art, received an email from Richard Semper, a Paris-based dealer, pitching a ‘hard piece I have for sale’. It was Nedjemankh’s coffin: Semper and his partner, Christophe Kunicki, wanted €4.5 million. Kunicki is a fixture in the European art world, fêted by museum curators. He usually worked through the auction house Pierre Bergé, but Nedjemankh was a direct sale. Over the course of the summer, as Patch deliberated over the purchase, the dealers behaved furtively, asking Patch to handle their exchanges ‘confidentially’. She did not appear to find this odd. In emails she assured Semper and Kunicki that the museum’s research into the coffin was to ‘be conducted only among ourselves’. In mid-September the dealers, now impatient, suggested a lower price. ‘You are the first and only one to know about [this piece],’ Kunicki wrote. ‘I cannot wait too long.’

Patch flew to Paris in December to view the coffin. She approved of what she saw and began the formal provenance research needed to get the Met board’s approval. Kunicki and Semper sent her document after document with redactions, gaps, errors and inconsistencies: two translations of an Egyptian export licence with conflicting dates, and two versions in Arabic, both missing the signature of the Egyptian antiquities authority and bearing a stamp of ‘A.R. Egypt’ for the Arab Republic of Egypt before it existed (from 1958 until September 1971, Egypt was known as the United Arab Republic), as well as contradictory accounts of the coffin’s present owner, alternately one ‘Madame Chatz’ of Switzerland, and Serop Simonian of Hamburg, a dealer at the heart of the smuggling network Bogdanos was tracking.

It is a curator’s job to make sure that artefacts they acquire haven’t been looted from a country experiencing war or political conflict. To that end, Patch asked a colleague to email the Egyptian authorities to check on the authenticity of the export licence. The Egyptians requested scans of the documents in order to verify them. Patch’s colleague wrote back claiming that she didn’t ‘have any copies, electronic or otherwise’, but at the same time insisting that the permit ‘looks right to us’. The Egyptian authorities didn’t respond to this muddled note. In February, despite lacking virtually every key piece of documentation evidencing the coffin’s credible sale and export from Egypt, Patch emailed Kunicki: ‘I’m happy to say the museum has decided to pursue this acquisition with the Board at the Met.’ She warned him, though, that the museum would eventually need the coffin’s original export licence. But Kunicki confessed to ‘just a little problem’. The owner had ‘lost it’.

In April 2017, Nedjemankh’s coffin flew to New York on American Airlines. It sat in a Met storeroom for a year until the museum launched its exhibition, with ads showing the golden coffin running on buses and trains across the city. In his office in Manhattan, Bogdanos’s investigation expanded and evidence piled up. He established that Nedjemankh was looted from the Minya region of Egypt in October 2011, while protesters were gathered in Tahrir Square confronting the military council that had deposed Mubarak. The thieves sent photographs of the coffin to a dealer working with Kunicki, and almost certainly to Kunicki himself, and then dispatched it to Dubai in a shipping container. Kunicki and Simonian conspired to move the coffin, which they referred to in emails as ‘the big yellow’, to Germany. In February 2013 they directed a trader in the UAE to produce a false invoice, describing Nedjemankh as a ‘gypsum wooden box’ worth €5000. The trader shipped the coffin to Germany via FedEx, where its trail disappeared until early 2016, when Kunicki approached the Met with his ‘hard piece’ from the Habib Tawadros collection.

In 2018 Bogdanos notified the Met of his findings. Its officials apologised profusely, declaring in a statement that ‘all of the museum’s acquisitions of ancient art undergo a rigorous vetting process,’ but in this case the Met had been a ‘victim of fraud and unwittingly participated in the illegal trade of antiquities’. In September 2019 an NYPD motorcade escorted Nedjemankh to JFK airport and the coffin was flown back to Egypt. Bogdanos didn’t hide his frustration at the carelessness and lack of scepticism he had encountered. ‘A neon sign flashing “stolen” would have been less subtle,’ he told me. There is sometimes an incentive to be lax when it comes to due diligence on extraordinary and enormously valuable objects. ‘What if it’s a piece you really want? What if it fills a niche in your gallery or your collection, what if it’s that missing piece? Maybe you don’t ask the hard questions. Maybe you rely later on the ostrich defence.’

The episode in New York raised alarms in France: in all, the Louvre’s acquisition committee for Abu Dhabi had purchased seven pieces from Kunicki and Semper. Bogdanos filled flash drives with evidence and delivered them in person to police in London, Brussels, Paris and Berlin. In February 2019, Marc Gabolde wrote to a Louvre official relaying his concerns about the alleged provenance of the Tutankhamun stele. A few weeks later he met a Louvre curator to discuss what he had learned. He told me it was a ‘complex discussion’ and that he felt embarrassed for the museum. By that point the stele’s alleged former owners were linked to a number of ‘problematic objects’. He published his study of the stele in the Revue d’Egyptologie. Illegal excavation and trafficking, he told me, not only destroyed crucial information on archaeological context, but also fuelled more serious crime. ‘That means violence, bribery, depravity, black market, dirty money.’

The Louvre’s director at the time, Jean-Luc Martinez, seems to have done nothing with these findings. According to a report by the Office Central de Lutte contre le Trafic des Biens Culturels, quoted in Libération, Martinez was more concerned with filling Abu Dhabi’s empty halls and maintaining good diplomatic ties with the UAE. For the Emiratis, arts infrastructure is central to state modernisation, and an area in which they have a natural advantage over Saudi Arabia, a key ally and increasingly also a rival. The Saudis can outspend the Emiratis several times over, but they are years behind in investing in cultural tourism. Like the last shah of Iran, who amassed the largest collection of Western contemporary art outside the West, bin Zayed is a secular moderniser. Also like the shah, he is accused of authoritarian tendencies, often by critics in the West who invoke human rights to condemn any initiative in the Gulf – green energy programmes, sports funding – as some form of ‘washing’.

It is true that Abu Dhabi tolerates little dissent and worked energetically to reverse popular uprising during the Arab Spring. But more recent global realignments have favoured the Emiratis’ calculations. Arab democracy is not a preoccupation in the West, and certainly not in Europe, where governments are forging ties with reactionary regimes as part of their war on immigration. In the present atmosphere, the UAE’s early bet against popular Islamist forces in the region seems prescient. And then there is the war in Ukraine. The West’s commitment to the defence of Ukrainian sovereignty has kindled resentment in the Global South, whose populations feel little direct threat from Russia and bear the cost in high food prices and diminished currencies. In this context, the decision to build a Louvre in Abu Dhabi as some kind of subaltern universal museum, an alternative cultural destination for populations who can’t afford or are no longer inclined towards the West, was ingenious.

In earlyJune, I visited the Louvre Abu Dhabi for the first time, driving out across the water to Saadiyat (‘Happiness’) Island, where the museum occupies a corner of the man-made peninsula jutting into the Persian Gulf. When building works are completed in 2025, the peninsula will serve as a cultural district housing four other museums, including a Guggenheim and a UAE national museum curated by the British Museum. At the moment, the Louvre looks out onto a sand-coloured stretch of warehouses, oil rigs and cranes. Golf carts driven by workers from South-East Asia idle in the car park waiting to ferry visitors fifty metres to the entrance. Valet parking is available. The museum itself is a gleaming white medina above a network of waterways, overlaid by a giant steel dome crosshatched in the geometric pattern of mashrabiya, the traditional Islamic screen. It makes the national museums of Tehran, Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo look a century behind. The internal glass walls are etched with epigraphs that may prove unfortunately chosen: ‘We have art in order not to die from the truth’; ‘The truth is rarely pure and simple.’

A path across the floor of the first gallery follows the outline of the Emirati coast and is dotted with the names of cities. Most of the children I saw enter the gallery instinctively walked along it. A Russian boy located Moscow in Cyrillic letters. A mother stopped her son at Kathmandu and made him sound it out in Hindi. The visitors were cosmopolitan: Uyghur women in elaborate head jewellery, French tourists dressed in dishdashas, an Israeli group on a private tour, migrant workers on their day off, central Asian businessmen, NYU students in silk abayas and matching designer bags. A group of Sudanese students bickered about whether pharaonic Egypt was a Black civilisation. An American woman looked at some objects and huffed: ‘Here are a bunch of random things we found.’

The permanent collection in fact contains hundreds of ancient and more contemporary pieces chosen to help visitors trace the museum’s narrative of a chaotic but shared global artistic heritage. The opening gallery displays maternity figures from various ancient civilisations: the Egyptian goddess Isis nursing her son Horus, a wooden sculpture of a woman cradling her child from the Yombe people of the Congo River region. The emergence of the earliest prehistoric villages is organised around tools and relics. There is a figurine from the civilisation of Bactria (2300-1700 BCE) of a woman with enormous puffed sleeves and a commanding gaze, and a monumental bronze lion originating in Islamic Spain that may have been a giant mechanical toy. There are also crowd-pleasing treasures that any museum would covet, notably the gilded sarcophagus of Princess Henuttawy from the Valley of the Queens.

The 20th century appears to pose a curatorial challenge. None of the great Arab modernists is on display and there are no nudes. The museum’s central ethos, that civilisations are alike in their preoccupations, falters when artists take on taboos: political oppression, the drudgery of labour, the lure of the brothel, the uncanniness of bodies. A guide pointed out a Manet portrait, The Bohemian, only for a trainee guide to sniff in disapproval. ‘I don’t like it. Poor people.’ The final work on display, the endpoint of this tour through great civilisations, is a porcelain disc inscribed with a pattern derived from the thumbprint of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, who founded the UAE in 1971.

In May​ 2022, Jean-Luc Martinez, who had stepped down as president of the Louvre the previous year but remained France’s cultural ambassador for the protection of antiquities in conflict, was charged by a French judge with complicity in gang fraud and money laundering for his role in buying looted antiquities for the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The nature of the charges suggested that prosecutors believed he knew he was selling antiquities with fake documents and that he personally profited from the crime. Jean-François Charnier, who served as the scientific director of Agence France-Muséums, and was more recently an adviser to Saudi Arabia’s $15 billion AlUla heritage project, was also arrested and charged with providing false provenance information for fifty million dollars’ worth of artworks acquired for Abu Dhabi. Libération reported that Charnier may have ignored concerns about the Tutankhamun stele, deferring to the wishes of an Emirati official on the Louvre Abu Dhabi acquisition committee who was determined to have it. There are allegations of ‘abnormal’ deposits into Charnier’s bank account – for example, from a Belgian auction house, also under investigation, which sold several works to Abu Dhabi with his assistance. Lawyers for both Martinez and Charnier have denied all charges against them.

French police, working from Bogdanos’s information, had been building their case for two years. In June 2020 they arrested Christophe Kunicki on charges of criminal conspiracy, gang fraud and money laundering. They asked to know, among other things, why he labelled antiquities from Yemen as being of ‘South Arabian origin’. ‘Because it’s prettier, more commercial,’ he told them. He has been confined to his home under judicial supervision ever since. Two months before arresting Martinez, Europol dispatched arrest warrants for the Germany-based members of the network, including members of the Simonian family, the Armenian clan at the heart of the network (the ‘brains’, according to Bogdanos). But Germany, where media and official interest in the case has been muted, refused to extradite them. Some of the family had small children, the German authorities said, and would be dealt with in due course by a Hamburg prosecutor. Roben Dib, the Lebanese dealer working for the Simonians, turned himself in, claiming that his sales had legal documentation and promising to co-operate with the investigation.

Once all the parties had engaged lawyers, a dialogue ensued about who was most to blame. Kunicki insisted he’d had ‘blind confidence’ in the pedigrees peddled by the Simonians, though according to Libération he admitted that some of the objects had ‘missing links’ which required ‘adding’. The Louvre Abu Dhabi made itself a civil party to the case, giving it access to the investigative files, and declared itself a ‘victim of trafficking’. One lawyer admitted that ‘maybe dealers were not always diligent enough,’ but argued that ‘the real perpetrators’ – the international museums turning a blind eye and the traffickers on the ground in the Middle East – weren’t being prosecuted. Maybe what was really going on, the lawyer for one of the curators suggested, was that ‘the French art police intends a purge of the global art market, through rounding up the lowest hanging targets: dealers and curators.’

In France, the question of responsibility has vexed investigators, who have for now charged only a handful of those involved. The informant-dealer Georges Lotfi, an important node in the network, is still living in Tripoli despite an Interpol red notice for his arrest. Demi-monde dealers such as Lotfi – who was implicated in the case of a $12 million marble bull’s head stolen by Phalangist militias during the Lebanese civil war that was loaned to the Met before it was repatriated in 2017 – tend to evade criminal justice, even though their services scaffold the business. According to Trafficking Culture, ‘they serve as the lynchpin, the vital connection that allows an antiquity looted by the world’s poor and moved by smugglers to enter our most elite cultural spaces, transforming them from contraband to commodity.’ Lotfi has denied any wrongdoing, insisting that the antiquities he imported into New York were legal. A lawyer for Charnier accused the French authorities of making her client a scapegoat. ‘If we want to create a universal museum in Abu Dhabi, it’s going to include risks,’ she said, ‘and we can’t have a single person bear the responsibility for those risks.’

In Manhattan, Bogdanos has made targeting the entire chain of criminality an official approach, with much success. His raids on the Fifth Avenue apartments of high-profile collectors have brought scrutiny to bear on a rarefied world where, as he puts it, ‘dealings always took place at cocktail parties and gentlemen’s clubs.’ He has seized so many antiquities from the Met that the museum has set up a special unit dedicated to provenance research. ‘As a pre-eminent voice in the global art community,’ the museum’s director, Max Hollein, said, it was incumbent on the Met to face ‘the changing climate on cultural property’. For a time, Bogdanos focused on auction houses, and some of them have responded by moving their antiquities business to Paris or London. Bogdanos told me the cumulative effect of these efforts has been ‘a spiritual awakening in the mainstream’ of New York collecting. ‘The dodgier pieces don’t come to the US anymore,’ he said. ‘The US doesn’t reward good laundering the way Europe does. Our goal is to ensure that when people come to New York and see an antiquity in a gallery or a museum or an Upper East Side apartment, it must be legal.’

For a time it looked as though the chargers against Martinez and Charnier might be dropped – the general prosecutor had asked that their indictments be cancelled – but on 3 February the Paris Court of Appeals announced that proceedings would go ahead. The UAE has remained silent in all of this. Lawyers for the two men have claimed that pressure from the Abu Dhabi acquisition committee played a part in their decision-making. But the extent of the relationship between the French state and the UAE – which involves investment, intelligence-sharing and military co-operation (France’s only base in the region is in Abu Dhabi) – means that more is at stake than the reputation of some museum officials. If Martinez and Charnier are convicted, then Abu Dhabi will be the aggrieved party. It is the French authorities who will appear corrupt and hypocritical.

The French investigation concerns not just the Tutankhamun stele and Nedjemankh’s coffin but five other objects sold by the Kunicki network, all Egyptian, including a blue hippopotamus, a Fayum funerary portrait and a bust of Cleopatra that has now been downgraded to ‘Head of a Ptolemaic Queen: Cleopatra VII (?)’. Zahi Hawass, the patriarch of state Egyptology, said Cairo was working to recover the stele. But he was contradicted by an antiquities official who said the government was waiting for the French investigation to be concluded. That could take years. ‘Egypt is generally passive in these things,’ one Egyptologist told me. ‘Their campaigns are generally highly nebulous, fought not to get objects back but to raise awareness.’ Nedjemankh was returned only thanks to Bogdanos’s efforts. Most of the time, Egypt’s protests go nowhere. In 2019, when Christie’s sold a Tutankhamun bust for £4.7 million, Egyptian authorities objected, claiming it was stolen, but Christie’s dismissed the claims. The bust has disappeared into an unspecified private collection.

There​ has been less controversy in the West over the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s Iraq collection. When the museum opened in 2017, a furious response erupted on Iraqi social media claiming that many of the objects on display had been looted in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion. An Iraqi official announced that the government would investigate and repatriate any stolen artefacts. But no state initiative emerged and the campaign went quiet. It’s not clear which – if any – of the Iraqi antiquities in the museum’s collection are illicit: some are on loan from the Louvre in Paris, others are recent acquisitions by Abu Dhabi. ‘It takes hours to start an online lynch mob about looted objects, whether they are or not, and months, if not years, to investigate it and come to a sound conclusion for deaccessioning and repatriation,’ Tom Hardwick, a scholar specialising in the history of collecting, told me. ‘Museums are always on the back foot with these things, and it looks bad.’

The Iraqi reaction wasn’t surprising. The country has seen three decades of Western-initiated heritage destruction. The first wave began in 1996, when a population pushed into poverty by the UN Security Council’s Oil-for-Food programme started looting cultural sites in order to survive. The second came in 2003, when neither the Americans nor the Iraqi army protected the Baghdad National Museum and National Library from pillaging. The third took place under Isis, who profited from the collapse of the Iraqi state, with swathes of the country’s Mesopotamian heritage illegally excavated and sacked. Iraq’s identity as a nation-state governed from Baghdad relies a great deal on its ancient heritage, which is shared by the country’s various ethnic and religious groups: Chaldeans, Jews, Assyrians, Armenian, Kurds, Shia and Sunni Muslims, Turkomen. Under Saddam Hussein, a dedicated police force guarded cultural sites, while construction and planning in archaeologically significant areas was regulated by the state.

The destruction and dispersal of Iraq’s cultural heritage following the 2003 invasion presaged the country’s fragmentation into sectarian fiefdoms. While some of the looting took place spontaneously in the immediate chaos of the moment, there were signs at the time that much of it was systematic. I reported from Iraq that summer. I remember standing outside the Baghdad Museum with a curator who was pacing back and forth in utter despair. Two journalists I know saw the men who torched the National Library arrive on a bus before setting the building on fire and leaving together on the same bus. Who benefited from its destruction? Perhaps a dozen regional and local actors. With the central government destroyed, Ba’athists excluded from public life, the country’s treasures stolen and its cultural institutions looted or burned, it was inevitable that religious and ethnic communities would move to protect their own sites and artefacts. Today, the Kurds oversee their own heritage activities in the north, Iran bankrolls reconstruction work in Shia areas and the UAE supports efforts in Sunni regions.

Iraq’s current president, Abdul Latif Rashid, said earlier this summer that rebuilding the country’s heritage ‘must be one of our highest priorities’, a way of showing that ‘peace and safety is restored.’ But as one Iraqi archaeologist told me, the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities is virtually bankrupt. The Iraqi state allocates almost no funding for heritage work, and any money that does appear is managed by sectarian political parties. ‘The ministry has been reduced to a rubber stamp. It doesn’t even have its own stationery.’ Police controls at archaeological sites are so lax that cuneiform tablets, easily smuggled because of their size, have flooded out of the country. Much of this takes place without the help of sophisticated criminal networks and forged papers. In 2022 a geologist from Bath on a tour of Iraq felt entitled to pack his suitcase, and that of a fellow tourist, with ancient shards of pottery. When he was arrested by Iraqi authorities at Baghdad airport, he claimed he hadn’t realised that smuggling antiquities in his checked baggage – ‘a trivial and dubious crime,’ according to his lawyer – was unlawful.

Nearly all the heritage work conducted in Iraq is funded by outside donors. The way international donors operate, the archaeologist told me, undermines the already compromised role of the Iraqi state. When Unesco announced in 2020 that it would rebuild the Nouri mosque in Mosul, its director for Iraq said that the project would be ‘totally community-orientated’ and that the work would correspond to the desires of the people of Mosul, because ‘this is their city and their heritage.’ ‘Donors use the concept of community to give legitimacy to their own programmes and interventions,’ the archaeologist said. ‘Whenever we talk about Iraq we deliberately erase the state.’ Chief among these donors is the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas, a consortium founded by the UAE and France in 2017 with Unesco backing. Through ALIPH, the UAE is paying $50 million towards the reconstruction of historic parts of Mosul, which will be completed with support of the Louvre. The funding is badly needed, and it’s hard to imagine who else might cover such a bill in Iraq’s Sunni heartland. But the financial and political dependencies it creates are complex. A good portion of the resources are funnelled to French organisations contracted to carry out the work.

The capture of Iraq’s heritage sector by international players has left Iraq looking like a 19th-century colonial property, where local officials are sent away during key moments in a dig. Ministers sign agreements based on decades-old co-operation templates that give total control to outside institutions. Often these projects are supposed to train and support Iraqi archaeologists in ‘post-conflict recovery’, but in practice little training takes place. The Iraqi archaeologist told me about one project run by a British funder that spent less than 10 per cent of allocated funds on training; the rest went on completing a dig in northern Iraq. ‘You would think that in the context of the hundreds of millions being spent here on cultural heritage, in the context of the massive destruction that took place, someone would establish a training institute to educate Iraqi archaeologists and engineers … That hasn’t happened. Western institutions are very happy for the Iraqi side to be dependent on them for both expertise and money.’

One effect of this dependency, which Egypt and Iraq experience in different ways, is that their governments are unable to demand the return of their patrimony, whether from auction houses or museums. Neither at the state or societal level is there the wherewithal to run a co-ordinated campaign for repatriation by those with the legal and moral case for waging one. In 2002, eighteen European and American museums, including the Met and the Louvre, issued a ‘Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums’, claiming that ‘museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation’ and that ‘to narrow the focus of museums whose collections are diverse and multifaceted would be a disservice to all visitors.’ In other words, no repatriation. Since that statement, five of those museums – the Rijksmuseum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Getty in Los Angeles and, in New York, MoMA as well as the Met – have been forced to return illicit artefacts to origin countries. The premise of the declaration may no longer be politically sustainable, but even in 2002 it was highly mendacious. The notion that an ordinary 20-year-old Nigerian, Iraqi or Iranian can visit France or Britain to view the Benin bronzes or Assyrian reliefs or the entire ancient Persian city of Susa is ludicrous. But even if, for the sake of argument, a young Iraqi managed to secure a visa to visit Britain this year, she would not find the full set of Assyrian reliefs in the British Museum: many are currently on loan to the Getty Villa in Los Angeles. As one former senior curator told me, the practice of lending out objects to other museums for financial gain – as the Louvre in Paris is doing presently with Abu Dhabi – is a tacit admission that the lending museum’s collection is abundant enough to do without. ‘To my mind this is an irresponsible way of dealing with another country’s cultural heritage,’ the curator said. ‘If you’re going to have it, you have to look after it properly and make it available. If you’re sending out very fine objects from your collection to Abu Dhabi or Los Angeles, if museums have so much stuff they can afford to send things to other places, they should think about sending them back to where they came from.’

Restitution and acquisition are inextricably linked. Should France, and by extension the UAE, be held accountable for illicit buying practices in the 21st century when other institutions are still refusing to examine their historic collections, which were amassed in the same way? Many archaeologists and heritage experts believe an international resolution or framework is required, perhaps under the aegis of Unesco. This would see agreed ethical guidelines around new acquisitions as well as an assessment of historic collections. ‘It’s about fairness in the end,’ Mark Altaweel, an archaeologist at University College London, told me. ‘Otherwise we’re left with a situation where some people are being held to different standards because they live in the Gulf, where we’re accusing newer museums of encouraging looting, and maybe there’s truth to that, but there’s more to the story.’

An international resolution that deals with both colonial plunder and contemporary trafficking sounds like a fantasy. The countries that would most benefit have the least influence at forums such as the UN. ‘It’s not any use for particular countries to make statements and gestures if other countries aren’t going to do it,’ a former curator told me. ‘Ad hoc solutions for political expedience … won’t on the whole be a very useful exercise or beneficial to countries that want stuff back.’

A century has passed since Howard Carter excavated Tutankhamun’s burial chamber and secreted away dozens of pieces that the Met later bought from his estate (they were returned to Egypt in 2010). There are signs of change. New York is no longer a safe haven for stolen antiquities. The long-standing argument made by opponents of repatriation – that antiquities are safer in Western institutions than in the corrupt hands of states in the Global South – looks increasing hollow. Recent scandals have raised awareness of the serious lack of protections for antiquities in highly regarded Western collections. In 2021 the Museum of the Bible sued a classics lecturer, Dirk Obbink, after discovering that he had sold them papyrus fragments apparently stolen from the Oxyrhynchus collection in Oxford. The British Museum, contending with thefts within its own halls, is close to finalising a deal which would see it lend the Elgin marbles to Greece in exchange for some heavy collateral. Whatever happens in France, it is hard to imagine any future French state acquisition team buying laundered antiquities with similar complacency.

Regions facing economic collapse and global sanctions often also see great private initiative. The Lebanese businessman Jawad Adra has become a controversial custodian of heritage in his home country, and in Syria, for buying up antiquities from the region and displaying them in his private museum or returning them to their state of origin. He has worked with the Lebanese authorities to create a register of antiquities, both to protect those in possession of them in case of theft and to gather information about objects and collections that would otherwise remain hidden. Adra has his critics. But his approach is nimble and pragmatic and his focus is on returning objects from the region back to the region, which he conceives of broadly, ‘not as the Sykes-Picot legacy’. If a piece from Palestine is shown in Lebanon, or a piece from Lebanon in Damascus, that is still a moral repatriation of sorts, better than having it sitting in a Paris museum or the townhouse of a private collector in New York. ‘If you don’t buy it and bring it back, what would you do? Just scream? You have to be part of the solution.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences