Five people have been arrested in France over the trafficking of Middle and Near East antiquities, the Art Newspaper has reported. According to a legal source cited in the report, they include a retired curator from the Musée du Louvre in Paris and an employee of the Pierre Bergé & Associés (PB&A) auction house.
The arrests are part of investigations into the widespread trafficking of such items. The case involves valuable items from Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya, according to the source. “Hundreds of pieces have been sold,” it is alleged, “for tens of millions of euros.”
In recent months, similar collections of trafficked pieces have been discovered in Spain and Italy, with UNESCO estimating that the trade could be worth between €5 and €7 billion ($5.6 to $7.8 billion) per year, reported France 24.
One item in question was the centrepiece of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2018. It was, said France 24, looted in Egypt in 2011 and smuggled out of the country via the UAE and Germany during the Arab Spring. The piece was later trafficked to France where it was held by a Parisian art dealer working for PB&A. The dealer is thought to have forged export documents to hide the item’s origins, enabling its onward sale.
A preliminary investigation into the group of professional art dealers, experts and museum curators implicated in trafficking charges was launched in July 2018. The results of the investigation were passed to judges in February, leading to an inquiry and the recent arrests.
According to the Art Newspaper report, the investigation which led to the arrest of the five could be linked to investigations in New York, Belgium and Switzerland dating back eight years.
One gallery owner, who had previously consigned some items from PB&A, told the paper, “It is a disgrace for the historically active Parisian market and I hope it will be an opportunity to establish clear legal guidelines, with a global database and a repatriation mechanism, which would allow us to have a more transparent licit antiquities market.”