CAIRO – Egypt said Wednesday its antiquities department severed ties with France's Louvre museum because it has refused to return what are described as stolen artifacts, one of the country's most aggressive attempts yet to reclaim relics from some of the world's leading Egyptology collections.
The Louvre's communications office said the museum is open to returning the artifacts demanded by Egypt, though the decision has to be taken by a special committee.
The Egyptian ruling means that no archaeological expeditions connected to the France's premier museum will be allowed to work in Egypt. Already Egypt has suspended an excavation sponsored by the Louvre at the massive necropolis of Saqqara and canceled a lecture in Egypt by a former curator of the museum.
"The Louvre Museum refused to return four archaeological reliefs to Egypt that were stolen during the 1980s from the tomb of the noble Tetaki," near the famed temple city of Luxor, said a statement quoting Supreme Council of Antiquities head Zahi Hawass.
A spokeswoman for the antiquities council said there would be a meeting Friday with the Louvre to resolve the matter.
"We do have great collaboration with them," she said. "What I hear is they are willing to return the items."
The Louvre's press office said that a national committee made up of specialists from France's museum world and other experts will meet by the end of the week to decided the issue with final approval given by the Culture Ministry.
The office added that it had no information on how or when the pieces had been acquired, declining to respond to Egypt's allegations that they were stolen goods.
Hawass' office described the four fragments as paintings of the nobleman's journey to the afterlife chipped from the walls of the tomb by thieves in the 1980s.
Christiane Ziegler, the former director of the Louvre's Egyptology department, acquired the four fragments last year and displayed them, said the SCA. She will now not be allowed to give a scheduled lecture in Egypt.
Upon taking the helm of Egypt's SCA in 2002, Hawass made recovering stolen Egyptian antiquities a priority.
He issued a regulation, that he says was agreed to by all major international museums including the Louvre, banning the acquiring or display of stolen antiquities.
Hawass has made several high profile requests from the world's museum for the return of Egyptian artifacts.
At the top of his list are 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.
Hawass said Egypt also was seeking "unique artifacts" from at least 10 museums around the world, including the Louvre in Paris and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.
In one of the more high profile and acrimonious fights, Hawass has repeatedly requested the return of a 3,200-year-old golden mask of a noblewoman from the St. Louis Art Museum.
Hawass also has written to request the bust of Anchhaf — the builder of the Chephren Pyramid — from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the statue of Hemiunu — nephew of the Pharaoh Khufu, builder of the largest pyramid — from Germany's Roemer-Pelizaeu museum.
Hawass long has sought items taken from Egypt, recently succeeding in winning the return from France of hair stolen from the mummy of Ramses II.
Since 2002, some 5,000 stolen artifacts have been recovered, according to Hawass.
The process is complicated by inadequate local and international laws and many museums maintain they acquire their artifacts legally and in a transparent manner.
The process of determining whether an artifact has even been stolen requires delicate cooperation between government, law enforcement, museums, and antiquities dealers. And frequently, there are gaps in the historical records.