“I’m confident in saying there will be more seizures and more prosecutions arising out of this investigation…”
Those were the words of Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, speaking to Ben Lewis last year on the Art Bust podcast. He was referring to an antiquities trafficking ring he’d uncovered that had been dealing in artefacts smuggled out of Egypt following the country’s 2011 revolution. Items had been taken out, often with forged export documentation, then sold by dealers in Europe sometimes to very prominent museums. The podcast had focused on one particular item, the golden Nedjemankh sarcophagus, which had to be returned by New York’s Metropolitan Museum in 2019, two years after the museum had acquired it from a French dealer.
Bogdanos’s prognostication is now coming to fruition, and at an incredible pace. Two weeks ago, the Louvre Museum’s former Director Jean-Luc Martinez was questioned by French authorities and then charged as an accessory to fraud and money laundering. Shortly thereafter, it was revealed that the New York District Attorney’s office had effectuated the seizure of five further pieces from the Met’s Egyptian collection, including a captivating Fayum female funerary portrait from c. 50 CE and hanging fragments from the Book of Exodus (detail right and below, originally from the Met’s collections page). These all relate to the criminal ring Bogdanos has been investigating for over six years, which has already led to the arrests of two art dealers in France and Germany.
The charges against Martinez are worth considering further. To my knowledge, no museum director (present or past) has ever been indicted in relation to alleged involvement in antiquities smuggling. This despite the fact that many used to quite knowingly turn a blind eye to acquisitions during the “age of piracy” of the 1960s and 1970s, to borrow the incriminating term used in former Met Director Thomas Hoving‘s memoirs. Of course senior curator Marion True from the Getty Museum was charged by Italian prosecutors in 2005, but she was not the museum’s director (and the charges were dropped two years later). Here, Martinez was not only director, but director of the world’s most popular – and arguably most prestigious – museum.
Without having seen the detailed accusations, it is difficult to know exactly what actions they relate to. But from reports (notably this one in the Art Newspaper by seasoned French journalist Vincent Noce), they relate not to Martinez’s directorship of the Louvre, but rather to his role as co-chair of the acquisitions committee of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The committee, under Martinez’s shared watch, had recommended the purchase of six pieces now purported to have been problematic. Pursuant to the 2007 agreement in place between France and Abu Dhabi, the committee is comprised of twelve members, eight from the French side and four from the Emirati side. The actual acquisition would have been made by the Louvre Abu Dhabi itself which, it should be recalled, is legally distinct from the Paris Louvre: it functions separately, but has rights to the name and is the recipient of French expertise acquired through the 2007 agreement.
At first glance, it is difficult to see how an accused individual like Martinez could be an accessory to fraud or money laundering simply by recommending the purchase to the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Is there proof the six pieces had indeed been looted? And, if so, what evidence is there that Martinez knew, or had reason to believe, that they were? The evidentiary threshold in criminal matters is usually very high. And what was his connection with the dealers who had already been charged? Were he an accessory, surely there were others with greater involvement. He was, after all, a prominent museum director at the time, who was undoubtedly being briefed on these matters by others. And in the end, he was only co-chair of a body whose role was advisory, with no powers of acquisition or ownership.
Since then, the Louvre itself (which Martinez left in 2021) has become involved in the matter, becoming a civil party to proceedings. And apparently French authorities travelled last week to New York in order to obtain evidence from witnesses, including some from the Met.
Questions abound. And we are still trying to get hold of the detailed charges against Martinez. Clearly Bogdanos and his team have been hard at work. The Assistant DA has been known to go rather far in some instances (and I have been critical of his actions in the past, notably in relation to a frieze fragment from Persepolis seized in 2017). Here, the French authorities are involved, so this obviously extends beyond the DA office’s own investigation. The French must have been convinced that something serious had been going on when these acquisitions were made. Because one doesn’t bring charges against a former museum director lightly. At least we would hope not.