Saturday, October 10, 2009

PARIS | France’s culture minister agreed Friday to return five painted wall fragments to Egypt after a row over their ownership prompted the Egyptians to cut ties with the Louvre museum.

A committee of 35 specialists unanimously recommended that France give back the painted wall fragments from a 3,200-year-old tomb near the ancient temple city of Luxor.

Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand “immediately decided to follow this recommendation,” his office said in a statement. It was not clear when France would send the fragments back to Egypt.

Mr. Mitterrand said the items were acquired by the Louvre in “good faith” and that the decision to return them reflects France’s and the Louvre’s commitment of “resolute action against illegal trafficking of cultural goods.”

Egypt’s antiquities chief, Zahi Hawass, described the disputed fragments as pieces of a burial fresco showing the nobleman Tetaki’s journey to the afterlife.

Mr. Hawass took his campaign to recover the nation’s lost treasures to a new level Wednesday by cutting ties with the Louvre over the artifacts. It was the most aggressive effort yet by Mr. Hawass, Egypt’s tough and media-savvy chief archaeologist, to reclaim what he says are antiquities stolen from the country and purchased by leading world museums.

Thousands of antiquities were spirited out of the country during Egypt’s colonial period and afterward by archaeologists, adventurers and thieves.

France is full of emblems of Egyptian history, from the Obelisk of Luxor at the Place de la Concorde, given to France by an Egyptian viceroy in the 19th century, to halls of sculptures, sarcophagi and other works in the Louvre.

Those at issue now, however, were obtained relatively recently. Mr. Hawass’ office said thieves chipped them from the walls of the tomb near the Valley of the Kings in the 1980s. The Louvre bought them in 2000 and 2003.

“It wasn’t until November 2008, after archaeologists rediscovered the tomb from which the frescoes appear to have come, that serious doubts emerged about the legality of their removal from Egyptian territory,” Mr. Mitterrand’s statement said.

The Culture Ministry would not comment on another piece held by the Louvre that Mr. Hawass has said he wants back: the painted ceiling of a temple at Dendera showing the zodiac.

Mr. Hawass also cut ties with the St. Louis Art Museum after it failed to answer his demand to return a 3,200-year-old golden burial mask of a noblewoman.

Mr. Hawass also wants the return of the bust of Nefertiti - wife of the famed monotheistic Pharaoh Akhenaten - and the Rosetta Stone, a basalt slab with an inscription that was the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The bust is in Berlin’s Egyptian Museum; the Rosetta Stone is in the British Museum in London.

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