France has handed over to Egypt five fragments of an ancient wall painting that were kept in storage at the Louvre museum in Paris.
President Nicolas Sarkozy presented today one of the slabs to his Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak, ending a year-long feud over their ownership.
The five "steles," which are each only 15 cm (5.9 inches) wide and 30 cm (11.8 inches) high, were removed from a wall painting in a 3,200-year-old tomb on the West Bank of Luxor.
Beautifully frescoed with scenes depicting the journey into the afterlife, the tomb belonged to Tetiky, a nobleman of the 18th Dynasty.
"In 2008, a team of Egyptologists from Heidelberg University investigated the tomb and found several pieces had been cut out of the walls. Slides from 1975 show the wall paintings intact, so we believe they were removed sometime in the 1980's and sold to private collections in Europe," Dr. Zahi Hawass, the secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), wrote in his blog.
The Louvre purchased four of the fragments from the Maspero gallery in France in 2000, while the fifth was acquired at auction in Paris in 2003.
After presenting evidence to the Louvre that the objects had left Egypt illegally, Cairo's antiquities department broke off ties with the museum in October, saying they would be restored once the fragments were returned.
"When the Louvre applied for their permits to continue their excavations at Saqqara, I was forced to suspend their excavations, because we cannot have teams working in Egypt when we know their organization possesses stolen artifacts," Dr. Hawass said.
"Any museum that buys stolen artifacts will receive this same treatment. I was forced to cut archaeological ties with the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the Saint Louis Art Museum because they would not return artifacts, even after the SCA presented evidence they had been stolen…. I hope this story will be a warning to everyone, all museums and archaeologists, Egyptians and foreigners, not to deal in stolen antiquities," Dr. Hawass said.
Emphasizing that the Louvre museum had acted in good faith when it purchased the artefacts, President Sarkozy remarked that "France is particularly committed to fighting the illegal trafficking of works of art."
Dr. Hawass, who claims to have secured the return of some 5,000 treasures during his SCA tenure, has recently started an international campaign for the return of renowed artefacts such as the bust of Queen Nefertiti held by Berlin's Neues Museum and the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum.
Photo: Rossella Lorenzi