France’s culture minister takes steps to patch up row with Egypt

PARIS (AP) – France’s culture minister agreed Friday to return painted wall fragments to Egypt after a row over their ownership prompted the country to cut ties with the Louvre Museum.

Experts with France’s national museum authority met to discuss the painted wall fragments from a 3,200-year-old tomb near the ancient temple city of Luxor, and recommended that France return them, according to an official with the Culture Ministry.

The ministry will comply with the recommendation, said the official, who was not authorized to be publicly named according to ministry policy.
It was not immediately clear when the works would be sent to Egypt.

Egypt’s antiquities chief 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 Zahi 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.

The move could jeopardize the Louvre’s future excavations in the country. Egypt suspended the Louvre’s excavation in the massive necropolis of Saqqara, near Cairo, and canceled a lecture by a former curator from France’s premier museum.

After Hawass’ announcement Wednesday, both the Louvre and France’s Culture Ministry said they were ready to return the pieces.

Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand, who said the items were acquired by the Louvre in “good faith” in 2000 and 2003, had ordered museum experts to meet first to study the issue.

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.

Meanwhile in Miami, the United States is taking legal steps to return a stolen 3,000-year-old sarcophagus to Egypt.

Federal prosecutors filed court papers Thursday seeking forfeiture of the ancient artifact. It wound up in Miami last year following a series of transactions that began at an antique dealership in Barcelona, Spain.

A Florida businessman who bought it from the Spanish dealer gave up all rights to it.
Egyptian authorities say the sarcophagus was probably illegally excavated years ago. It is made out of wood and is yellow, covered by elaborate hieroglyphics and symbols. Prosecutors say it was built between 1070 and 946 B.C. for the mummified remains of an unknown person.

Virtually all such antiquities belong to the Egyptian government. The court case would allow for the sarcophagus to return to Egypt.

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AP-ES-10-09-09 1055EDT