Stolen Egyptian Relics On Their Way Home

France decided on Friday to return to Egypt five relics stolen from Luxor's Valley of the Kings and sold to the Louvre, two days after Cairo severed ties with the Paris museum in protest.

A special commission of the French museums agency decided unanimously to hand over the five painted wall fragments after ruling that they were indeed stolen in the 1980s before ending up at the Louvre in 2000 and 2003.

"Restitution is now just a matter of weeks," said a culture ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Egypt on Wednesday severed all ties with the Louvre to press demands that the Paris museum return the artifacts.

The French government has said the Louvre acted in good faith when it purchased the relics and that doubts were only raised in November after archaeologists discovered the tomb and the missing fragments.

Egyptian Antiquities chief Zahi Hawass told AFP in Cairo that he believed the Paris museum had bought the antiquities even though its curators knew they were stolen.

"The purchase of stolen steles is a sign that some museums are prepared to encourage the destruction and theft of Egyptian antiquities," said Hawass.

The five small relics were chipped away from the wall painting of an ancient Egyptian tomb dating back to the 18th dynasty and are currently in storage at the Louvre.

Museum curators purchased four of the five fragments in 2000 from the collection of French archaeologist Gaston Maspero and a fifth piece was bought in 2003 during a public sale at the Drouot auction house.

Egypt's decision to suspend cooperation put a hold on conferences organized with the museum, as well as work carried out by the Louvre on the Pharaonic necropolis of Saqqara, south of the capital Cairo.

But within hours of Cairo's announcement, Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand declared that France was ready to return the antiquities if they were indeed stolen.

The minister asked the special commission to quickly rule on whether the relics were stolen and said that he would be ready to act on restitution "without delay" once a decision had been rendered.

The row over the Pharaonic antiquities came just week after Egyptian Culture Minister Faruq Hosni complained bitterly over his defeat in the race to become the new director of the UN culture agency UNESCO, which is based in Paris.

Egyptian officials however denied that there was link between the UNESCO row and the decision to take action against the Louvre.

In recent years Egyptian authorities have been increasingly vociferous in campaigning for the return of important works that enrich the collections of such top museums as the Louvre and London's British Museum.

In 2007, France returned hairs from an ancient pharaoh that were nearly sold on the Internet by a French postal worker whose father had acquired them during the scientific examination of the royal mummy 30 years previously.

The case prompted Egyptian authorities to bar foreign scientists from examining royal mummies.

Egypt has also long demanded the return from Berlin of a bust of the legendary Queen Nefertiti that was discovered on the banks of the Nile by German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt in December 1912.

The case mirrors that of the so-called Elgin Marbles, the decorative frieze that used to adorn the Parthenon in Athens whose return by the British Museum in London Greece has long demanded.

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