French art dealer Didier Wormser faces trial for trafficking in looted Egyptian antiquities

In an ongoing court case, a Paris prosecutor has sought a suspended three-year prison sentence and a €100,000 fine for Didier Wormser, a French art dealer accused of trafficking in looted Egyptian antiquities. Prosecutor Francois Antona also requested that artifacts seized during the investigation, which began in 2014, be returned to Egypt. The trial of 66-year-old Wormser, owner of the L’Etoile d’Ishtar gallery, took place at the Paris Criminal Court on August 30-31.

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

The objects purchased by Wormser in 2003 are related to the Sixth Dynasty (2330-2150 BC) necropolis site at Saqqara, including the tomb of a priest called Hau or Hau-Nefer. The court heard testimony from Vasil Dobrev, an Egyptologist at the French Institute of Oriental Archeology (IFAO) in Cairo who led excavations at the site in 2001. According to a legal statement from the Egyptian government, when excavations resumed in October 2002, “it appears that a dozen engraved stones were removed from the facades of tomb chapels’. However, Wormser’s lawyer, Anne-Sophie Nardon, argued that because the theft was only reported in 2014 and no criminal complaint was filed by the Egyptian state, the defendant could not have known at the time of purchase that the pieces were looted.

Dobrev said he didn’t immediately report the theft because he “couldn’t prove it.” In 2013, he learned that the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts had just purchased a partition named after Howe and his wife. In a statement to Art Gazette, the museum says it bought the work for €360,000 from British dealer Rupert Wace at the Tefaf fair in Maastricht. Wace, the museum said, was provided “relevant documentation that the work was sold in 1974” by the Mythologies gallery in Paris, owned by the late Frans Lucas. Investigators concluded that the documents were “gross forgeries.” The museum says it will “respect its potential obligation of restitution” but still expects Egypt to “provide evidence of the looting”.

A government official says Egypt is awaiting the final decision, due on October 18, before filing a formal restitution claim against the Budapest museum. Wace declined to comment. According to court documents, he sold the artifact to the museum in partnership with Parisian dealer David Geselbash, who purchased the fragments from Wormser’s gallery. In March, Ghezelbash was accused of mass fraud in the Abu Dhabi Louvre antiquities investigation and he was forced to close his gallery.

In his testimony, Wormser named another antiques expert and dealer involved in the case, Christoph Kunicki. Wormser said he put two engraved stones up for sale in 2012 and 2013 through the Pierre Bergé & Associés auction house, where Kunicki acted as an expert. In both cases, the auction catalogs claimed the items were sold in Paris in the mid-1970s, but, according to Warmser, Kunicki “never asked to see any document” indicating their provenance.

Wormser admitted to the 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 bought a total of six parts of the tomb (three were excluded from the case because the statute of limitations had expired) “in full good faith” from Finatrading, a British Virgin Islands company owned by Swiss businessman Yves Bouvier. The firm sold the pieces, which were broken into 11 fragments before being restored by Wormser’s gallery, for €10,000, prompting the lawyer representing the Egyptian government, Matthew Boisavi, to wonder if the deal “hides some sort of occult financial chain”.

Records show that between 2003 and 2005, the L’Etoile d’Ishtar gallery bought 90 antiques from Finatrading that were transported from Switzerland by Art Transit, another Bouvier-owned company. Wormser said he subsequently “stopped buying from Finatrading because he was unable to provide correct provenance documents”.

Questioned by Art Gazette, Bouvier said he could not comment on sales he “didn’t recall” and that he could not access the company’s records, which are kept in Asia. Bouvier has not been charged or questioned by French police. No charges were brought against Vace, Gezelbash or Kunicki. So Warmser stood alone in the dock. His lawyer asked the court to avoid “pointing out Didier Wormser as a scapegoat” and to “take into account” that the “legal and cultural context” of the art market has “completely changed” in the past decade.

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