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French art dealer Didier Wormser on trial for smuggling looted Egyptian antiquities

In an ongoing case, a Paris prosecutor has requested a three-year suspended prison sentence and a 100,000 euro fine against Didier Wormser, a French art dealer accused of trafficking in looted Egyptian antiquities. The prosecutor, François Antona, also requested that the objects seized during the investigation, opened in 2014, be repatriated to Egypt. The trial of Wormser, 66, owner of the L’Etoile d’Ishtar gallery, took place at the Paris Criminal Court on August 30 and 31.

Wormser is also accused of using false documents to create “false provenances” for the objects. Antona asked the court to “make an example” of the dealer to deter the art market from such practices, pointing out that several individuals named in this case were also involved in other trafficking scandals, including the ongoing investigation. on Egyptian antiquities sold at the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The artefacts purchased by Wormser in 2003 relate to the site of a Sixth Dynasty (2330-2150 BC) necropolis at Saqqara, including the tomb of a priest called Hau or Hau-Nefer. The court heard testimony from Vassil Dobrev, an Egyptologist with the French Institute of Oriental Archeology (IFAO) in Cairo who led excavations at the site in 2001. According to a legal statement by the Egyptian government, when excavations resumed in October 2002, “it appeared that a dozen engraved stones had been removed from the facades of the chapels of the tombs”. However, Wormser’s lawyer, Anne-Sophie Nardon, argued that since the theft was only reported in 2014 and no criminal complaint was filed by the Egyptian state, the accused could not know at the time of purchase that the parts had been looted.

Dobrev said he didn’t immediately report the theft because “he couldn’t prove it.” In 2013, he learned that the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest had just acquired a lintel bearing the name of Hau and his wife. In a statement to The arts journal, the museum says it bought the piece for €360,000 from British dealer Rupert Wace during the Tefaf Maastricht fair. Wace, according to the museum, provided “relevant documents indicating that the work was sold in 1974” by the Parisian gallery Mythologies, owned by the late France Lucas. Investigators concluded that the papers were “gross forgery”. The museum says it will “respect its possible obligation of restitution”, but still expects Egypt to “present evidence of the looting”.

A government official says Egypt is awaiting the final judgment, expected on October 18, before submitting a formal request for restitution to the Budapest museum. Wace declined to comment. According to court documents, he sold the artifact to the museum in partnership with Parisian dealer David Ghezelbash, who had purchased the fragments from Wormser’s gallery. In March, Ghezelbash was charged with collective fraud in the Louvre Abu Dhabi antiquities investigation, and he was forced to close his gallery.

In his testimony, Wormser named another expert and antiquities dealer involved in this case, Christophe Kunicki. Wormser said he offered two engraved stones for sale in 2012 and 2013 through the auction house Pierre Bergé & Associés, where Kunicki acted as an expert. In both cases, the auction catalogs claimed the objects had been sold in Paris in the mid-1970s, but, according to Wormser, Kunicki “never asked to see a document” showing their provenance.

Wormser admitted in court that there was no doubt that the stones came from the Saqqara necropolis and that they “should be returned to Egypt”. He said he purchased a total of six pieces from the tomb (three were excluded from the case because the statute of limitations had expired) “in good faith” from Finatrading, a British Virgin Islands company owned by the Swiss businessman Yves. Herdsman. The company sold the pieces, which were broken into 11 fragments before being restored by the Wormser Gallery, for €10,000, leading the lawyer representing the Egyptian government, Matthieu Boissavy, to wonder if the transaction “hid an occult financial circuit”.

Records show that between 2003 and 2005, L’Etoile d’Ishtar gallery purchased 90 antiques from Finatrading which were transported from Switzerland by Art Transit, another company owned by Bouvier. Wormser said he subsequently “stopped buying from Finatrading because he failed to provide proper provenance documentation.”

Asked by The arts journal, Bouvier said he could not comment on sales he had “no memory of” and could not access company records, which are kept in Asia. Bouvier has not been charged or questioned by French police. No charges were brought against Wace, Ghezelbash or Kunicki. Wormser was therefore alone in the dock. His lawyer asked the court to avoid “taking Didier Wormser as a scapegoat” and to “take into account” that the “legal and cultural context” of the art market had “completely changed” over the last decade.

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