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Louvre probe: Five ancient Egyptian artefacts seized from New York's MET

The pieces date back to 450 BCE and form part of a trafficking investigation into treasures sold via the Louvre
Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on 5 October 2015 (AFP/file photo)

New York prosecutors have seized five Egyptian antiques from the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of an international trafficking investigation involving the former head of the Louvre in Paris. 

A New York state judge ordered the confiscation of the items on 19 May, a court document shows. 

The spokesperson for the district attorney told AFP on Thursday that, "The pieces were seized pursuant to the warrant.”

He added that they were "related" to the investigation into Jean-Luc Martinez, who was charged in Paris last week with complicity in fraud and "concealing the origin of criminally obtained works by false endorsement."

The antiques, which include a group of painted linen fragments dated between 450-250 BCE depicting a scene from the book of Exodus, are worth more than $3m, according to the Manhattan district attorney's office. 

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Also among the five works is a painted portrait of a woman dated between CE 54-68 and worth $1.2m. 

According to The Art Newspaper, which first reported the news, the Met purchased them from the Louvre between 2013 and 2015, when Martinez was head of the museum.

When AFP contacted the Met, a spokesperson referred to a previous statement wherein the museum said it was "a victim of an international criminal organisation."

This is not the first time the Met has been sold items with false documentation. In 2019, it returned the gilded sarcophagus of the priest Nedjemankh to Egypt after New York prosecutors found it had been stolen during the Arab spring protest in 2011. 

The Met purchased the coffin in 2017 and later claimed that it had been a victim of false statements and fake documentation. 

Robin Dib, a gallery owner in Hamburg who was arrested in March and extradited to Paris for questioning, which led to Martinez's indictment, was also involved in the sarcophagus sale to the Met, according to a 2019 report by the Manhattan district attorney. 

Now, French investigators are also looking to establish whether the Louvre's branch in Abu Dhabi acquired pieces looted during the Arab Spring protests. 

They suspect that hundreds of artefacts were pillaged from Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries during the Arab Spring in 2011 and were then sold to galleries and museums that did not ask about previous ownership.