Trafficking in antiquities, the Palais des beaux-arts de Lille in turn concerned

The newspaper Release revealed Tuesday, December 5 that an investigation was underway into a portrait of Fayoum acquired in 2011 by the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille. This portrait of a Roman soldier on wood dates from the beginning of the 2nd century AD, and is part of a set of a thousand pieces discovered in 1880 in Upper Egypt. The “Fayoum portraits” have aroused constant enthusiasm since their discovery because of their finesse and the cultural syncretism that they illustrate.

Its acquisition by the museum for 100,000 euros (including costs) was made possible by financing from the town hall of Lille, the Hauts-de-France region, a pre-emption from the State and by patronage from Crédit Mutuel. This centerpiece of the museum’s collections was acquired from the house of Pierre Bergé and associates in May 2011 on the advice of the Louvre Museum, according to the Lille town hall which published a press release on December 6 following the Libération article.

In reality, the case dates back several months, when the OCBC (Central Office for Combating Trafficking in Cultural Property) seized this portrait in June 2023, as part of a vast investigation into trafficking in Egyptian antiquities. in which the Louvre Museum and several experts are cited. Indeed, the expert who confirmed the authenticity of the portrait is none other than the art dealer Christophe Kunicki, indicted, among other things, for organized gang fraud and criminal association as part of this investigation opened in 2020 .

At the time, the Lille museum had not communicated about this seizure by the OCBC and the information was therefore only revealed on December 5. According to Lille town hall, the seizure is intended to verify the authenticity of the work through laboratory analyses. According to the newspaper 20 minutes, its provenance is nevertheless traceable back to the 1920s in a British collection in Cairo. The portrait was then attested in the 1980s in an American collection, and on the stand of a British gallery at Basel Ancient Art Fair in 2008 where it was offered at 185,000 euros, again according to 20 minutes.

Neither the Lille Palace of Fine Arts nor the Louvre have made any comments on this affair which greatly embarrasses the art world: Christophe Kunicki was in fact the main expert in oriental and Mediterranean antiquities in France, and he appraised numerous pieces subsequently acquired by museums. He is also a member of the committee of the French Society of Egyptology. Christophe Kunicki and her husband are suspected by the OCBC of having taken advantage of the disorder created by the Arab Spring in 2011 to illegally remove antiquities from Egypt, Syria and Libya. The certificates of provenance could have been falsified, hence the seizure of the pieces acquired through the couple since 2011.

In its press release, the town hall announces that it reserves the right to “file a complaint and become a civil party” if the investigation revealed that there was deception on the part of the sellers. This affair comes at a bad time for the Palais des beaux-arts de Lille because, according to the admission of its former director Alain Tapié, the museum had been seeking for a long time to acquire this portrait to enrich its Egyptian collections, and it was one of the most important acquisitions. most expensive of the museum.

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