- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 8, 2009

CAIRO | Egypt’s antiquities czar took his campaign to recover the nation’s lost treasures to a new level Wednesday by cutting ties with one of the world’s premier museums, the Louvre, over disputed artifacts.

The Paris museum’s refusal to return painted wall fragments of a 3,200-year-old tomb near the ancient temple city of Luxor could jeopardize its future excavations in Egypt.

It was the most aggressive effort yet by Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s chief archaeologist, in his campaign to reclaim what he says are antiquities stolen from the country and purchased by some of the world’s leading museums.

His move appeared to have borne fruit almost immediately. The Louvre and the French Culture Ministry said they were ready to return the pieces.

“The Louvre museum refused to return four archaeological reliefs to Egypt that were stolen during the 1980s from the tomb of the noble Tetaki,” said a statement quoting Mr. Hawass, chief of the Supreme Council of Antiquities.

This was not the first time Mr. Hawass cut ties with a museum. He took a similar step against 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. But taking such an action against an institution of the Louvre’s stature is unprecedented.

Egypt immediately suspended the Louvre’s excavation in the massive necropolis of Saqqara, near Cairo, and canceled a lecture in Egypt by a former curator from the museum.

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

Mr. Hawass’ office described the disputed fragments as pieces of a burial fresco showing the nobleman Tetaki’s journey to the afterlife and said thieves chipped them from the walls of the tomb near the Valley of the Kings in the 1980s.

Christiane Ziegler, the former curator of the Louvre’s Egyptology department, acquired the four fragments, according to the antiquities council. She will now not be allowed to give a scheduled lecture in Egypt.

The French said there were five fragments, while the Egyptians report four. There was no way to immediately reconcile the discrepancy.

French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand said that he thinks the artifacts should be returned and that the pieces were acquired by the Louvre in “good faith” 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,” a statement from Mr. Mitterrand’s office said.

The Louvre’s press office said a national committee made up of specialists from France’s museum world and other experts will meet to decide whether to return the artifacts, with final approval given by the Culture Ministry.

Mr. Mitterrand said he asked the committee to meet Friday.

If the committee favors returning the pieces to Egypt, Mr. Mitterrand’s office said he is “ready to immediately return the frescoes to Egyptian authorities.”

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