The 2017 inauguration of the Louvre Abu Dhabi (via Wikimedia Commons)

The saga surrounding an international antiquities smuggling ring continues: Two top Louvre Abu Dhabi collection advisors were taken into custody by French authorities on Monday, July 24 for their potential role in the museum’s acquisition of trafficked Egyptian artifacts, as first reported by the French newspaper Libération. They are being investigated by France’s Central Office for the Fight Against Trafficking in Cultural Property (OCBC).

Jean-François Charnier and Noëmi Daucé will be held for questioning for up to 96 hours. This comes after the Louvre’s former president Jean-Luc Martinez was charged in May with concealing the origins of illegally smuggled Egyptian antiquities that were purchased by the museum’s new Abu Dhabi branch. Daucé currently works as a curator at the Louvre in Paris.

The museum declined to issue a statement to Hyperallergic, saying it could not comment on ongoing investigations.

Charnier and Daucé worked alongside Martinez at the Agence France-Muséums (AFM), a private body established in 2007 to advise the newly conceptualized Louvre Abu Dhabi on acquiring a collection. The museum itself was the product of a 2007 agreement between by 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 ensured training, support, and temporary loans from the Paris institution. The Louvre Abu Dhabi opened its doors in 2017.

But according to an internal investigation conducted by AFM in 2021, quoted by Libération, the agency “has in fact become a formidable instrument available to traffickers.”

In 2016, before the museum opened, the Louvre Abu Dhabi purchased five allegedly trafficked Egyptian antiquities for $8.6 million, including a rare 1327 BCE granite stele depicting a royal decree from Pharaoh Tutankhamun. France opened an investigation in 2018, and Martinez was eventually charged this May. Two months earlier, French authorities arrested the broker of the sale, German-Lebanese gallery owner Robin Dib.

The ongoing investigation alleges ties to archaeology expert Christophe Kunicki, who is associated with 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 seized from the Met this May after their ties to the smuggling ring came to light.)

In 2017, the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased a gold coffin from Christophe Kunicki. Two years later, the museum returned it after discovering it was stolen. (via Wikimedia Commons)

According to Libération, French investigators said of AFM: “The members of this agency […] showed negligence, incompetence, or amateurism, but also an excess of confidence towards Christophe Kunicki and his husband, who enjoyed an excellent professional reputation. It appears that Jean-François Charnier and Noëmi Daucé, in particular, have truly failed in their obligations.”

But beyond “negligence” the investigation might suggest more insidious behavior: Charnier received six money transfers between November 2016 and June 2018 to a UAE bank account that were sent from a Belgian auction house.

According to authorities in that country, the auction house was run by brothers Ali and Hicham Aboutaam. A 2003 ICE investigation found that they were “allegedly trafficking in illegally obtained art and antiquities” after they attempted to sell an alabaster stele at Sotheby’s (and Hicham pled guilty to forging an import document for a separate object the following year), and the brothers came under scrutiny over a decade later for trafficking antiquities looted by ISIS. Charnier’s sister also allegedly received payments from the Aboutaams, sent to a Moroccan bank account.

Jean–François Charnier left AFM in 2018 and now works as an advisor for the French Agency for Alula Development, a project initiated by the Saudi Arabian government to better the country’s position as a tourist and cultural heritage destination. AFM told Hyperallergic it “condemns anything that contributes to the illicit trafficking of works of art,” but does not wish to comment on the ongoing case, which they have petitioned to join as a civil party.

The smuggling ring has been the subject of scrutiny for nearly a decade: In 2013, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office opened an investigation into Dib, Kunicki, and German dealer Serop Simonian, and a 2019 letter from the Manhattan DA to the Egyptian Minister of Antiquities, reviewed by Hyperallergic, revealed that international investigations of Dib and Simonian had resulted in the seizure of “hundreds of pieces of stolen cultural property.”

Editor’s note 7/27/22 11am EDT: This article has been updated with a response from AFM.

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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