A new report on art trafficking commissioned by the French Ministry of Culture says its museums must strengthen their acquisition policies to preserve the country’s cultural influence

The French Ministry of Culture has published a lengthy report advising French museums how to avoid acquiring trafficked works of art. The report, published on November 21, claimed that the country’s reputation and cultural influence were at stake, particularly in a bustling international art market where competition, particularly from their Anglo-Saxon neighbours, is strong.

Culture Minister Rima Abdul-Malak commissioned the special report in June, during a ongoing scandal involving the indictment of former Louvre director Jean-Luc Martinez and curator Jean-François Charnier. Both have been charged with “complicity in fraud and gang money laundering”, in the acquisition of antiquities allegedly looted from Egypt, which were purchased for more than $50 million by Louvre Abu Dhabi. In February, a French court will decide whether to drop these charges.

The investigation has cast a shadow over the main French cultural institutions and agencies, which it likens to diplomatic envoys, and is therefore an integral part of maintaining the country’s economic weight. The development of the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum has been as much an exercise in international relations as an artistic exchange. Its collection was shaped by the consulting firm France Muséums.

The report titled “Improving the Security of National Museum Acquisitions” makes it clear that even if “zero risk does not exist”, ensuring that similar fiascos do not happen again should be a top priority for the state.

“In other countries with a large art market or large museums, the unfortunate acquisition of a museum has little other consequences than the return of the work by the private museum, and legal steps to obtain reimbursement (this is the case in the USA, for example)”, notes the report. [The U.S. reference may pertain to the return of looted artworks by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as a result of the same art trafficking investigation that implicated French museum workers.] “In France, on the other hand, it is the reputation of the State which is undermined by the same situation”, argues the report.

The report describes the current context of concern about art trafficking, as competition within the global art market, and “among major countries in terms of cultural influence, is particularly tough”. Added to this are growing demands for restitution, and the “European reconfiguration” due to Brexit, of the former “increasing dominance of Anglo-Saxon public auctions”, warns the report.

In short, an “effective reaction is necessary to guarantee France’s ability to influence”, to “increase confidence in the French market” and to contribute to the fight against money laundering and the financing of terrorism, both related to the sale of looted property. art, note the report’s authors: museum and art market experts Marie-Christine Labourdette, Christian Giacomotto and Arnaud Oseredczuk.

The trio interviewed more than 60 art professionals before coming up with 42 recommendations, on which the Ministry of Culture told Artnet News it was acting quickly.

“On our side, we have already started moving forward with some recommendations, which will be implemented as early as 2023,” a ministry spokesperson said. Other government departments named in the report, which calls for a large-scale concerted effort, have also “shown they are aware of the issues”, the official added.

The more than 70-page document, reviewed by Artnet, does not focus on a single incident, but delves into how art is acquired and offers ways to check and balance that process. It advocates a more unified and ‘collegial’ approach to acquisitions, allowing for varied viewpoints, both inside and outside museums. For example, establish a special provenance and acquisition unit made up of people from multiple departments, law enforcement officials, and artists. In this vein, the report says access to police records on art sellers should be more accessible and digitized.

Other advice includes new modes of training and education within the Ministry of Culture: a new master’s program in provenance studies at the Ecole du Louvre is an original suggestion.

The researchers also criticized current lax criminal penalties for the inappropriate handling of provenance information, especially in an unregulated market, where it can be common to do the minimum to verify the origin of an artwork – a process that in itself is unclear and unsystematic, the report says. He pleads for a strengthening and clarification of the acquisition rules, with a new “methodological and ethical framework”, which incorporates the recommendations of the OCBC (Central Office for the Fight against Trafficking in Cultural Property).

New controls and “certificates of integrity” attesting to know-how, in particular related to provenance and authenticity for the purpose of public sale, are also on the agenda.. Other recommendations include: setting up an alert system in case of doubt about the origin of an object; a modernized export certification process; greater transparency on public sales; and new recruits to the understaffed OCBC.

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Christopher S. Washington