The saga of an international antiquities smuggling ring continues: Two senior collections advisers at Louvre Abu Dhabi were taken into custody by French authorities on Monday July 24 over their possible role in acquiring smuggled Egyptian artifacts, first reported by the French newspaper liberation. They are being investigated by the French Center for Combating Trade in Cultural Goods (OCBC).
Jean-François Charnier and Noëmi Daucé are being held for interrogation for up to 96 hours. This comes after former Louvre President Jean-Luc Martinez was accused in May of concealing the origins of illegally smuggled Egyptian antiquities bought by the museum’s new Abu Dhabi branch. Daucé currently works as a curator at the Louvre in Paris.
The museum declined to make a statement to Hyperallergic, saying it could not comment on ongoing investigations.
Charnier and Daucé worked alongside Martinez at Agence France-Muséums (AFM), a private entity set up in 2007 to advise the newly conceived Louvre Abu Dhabi on acquiring a collection. The museum itself was the result of a 2007 agreement between the United Arab Emirates and France that allowed the wealthy city of Abu Dhabi to build a museum with the Louvre’s iconic name, and secured training, support and temporary loans from the Parisian institution. The Louvre Abu Dhabi opened its doors in 2017.
But according to an internal investigation conducted by AFM in 2021, cited by liberationthe agency has “indeed become a formidable tool at the disposal of traffickers”.
In 2016, ahead of the museum’s opening, Louvre Abu Dhabi acquired five putative Egyptian antiquities for US$8.6 million, including a rare granite stele dating back to 1327 BC. BC, which represents a royal decree of the pharaoh Tutankhamun. France launched an investigation in 2018, and Martinez was eventually charged in May this year. Two months earlier, French authorities arrested the agent behind the sale, the German-Lebanese gallery owner Robin Dib.
The ongoing investigation claims links to archeology expert Christophe Kunicki, who is linked to Dib. In 2020, two years before Dib’s arrest, Kunicki was charged with money laundering and fraud following an investigation into his sale of an ancient Egyptian gold coffin to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (The sarcophagus was returned, and five other objects were confiscated by the Met this May after their links to the smuggling ring were exposed.)
Corresponding liberationFrench investigators said via AFM: “The members of this agency […] Negligence, incompetence or amateurishness, but also excessive trust in Christophe Kunicki and his husband, who enjoyed an excellent professional reputation. It seems that Jean-François Charnier and Noëmi Daucé in particular have really failed in their commitments.”
But ‘negligence’ aside, the probe may point to more insidious behavior: Between November 2016 and June 2018, Charnier received six money transfers to a bank account in the UAE, sent by a Belgian auction house.
According to the authorities of that country, the auction house was run by brothers Ali and Hicham Aboutaam. A 2003 ICE investigation found they were “allegedly dealing in illegally acquired art and antiques” after attempting to sell an alabaster stele at Sotheby’s (and Hicham pleaded guilty to filing an import document for a separate object the following year forgery), and the brothers came under scrutiny over a decade later for dealing in antiques looted by ISIS. Charnier’s sister is said to have received payments from the Aboutaams to a Moroccan bank account.
Well Jean–François Charnier works as a consultant for the French Agency for Alula Development, a project initiated by the Saudi Arabian government to improve the country’s position as a tourist and heritage destination. The agency did not respond to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
The smuggling ring has been under investigation for nearly a decade: in 2013, Manhattan prosecutors launched an investigation into Dib, Kunicki and German dealer Serop Simonian, and a 2019 letter from Manhattan prosecutors to Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities, reviewed by Hyperallergic, revealed international investigations into Dib and Simonian had led to the seizure of “hundreds of stolen cultural objects”.