Bought in the Drouot salesrooms on November 10th 1998 by Maryvonne Pinault, the wife of French tycoon François Pinault, a 57 cm high stone statue of the warrior pharaoh Sesostris III has been creating havoc in court for five years while another crucial hearing will take place in Paris on September 10th 2003.
On November 10th 1998, French auctioneer Coutau-Bégarie sold for some 770 000 euros a statue of Sesostris III described by French expert Chakib Slitine as a work produced during the reign of the pharaoh, which by all means bore comparison with the statue of the queen Ouret, his mother, a masterpiece that had just been acquired by the Louvre Museum thanks to a generous donation from the Pinault couple.
The Sesostris statue was bought by Mrs Pinault after she reportedly received a favourable opinion from Mrs Elisabeth Delange, an egyptologist and curator of the Louvre Museum who was also said to have asserted that such a piece was worthy of being exhibited permanently in the museum. Apparently, Mrs Pinault thus bought it to donate it to the Louvre.
Before the sale, Dietrich Wildung, head of the Berlin Museum, had however expressed some serious doubts about the authenticity of this sculpture. After acquiring this piece, the Pinault couple rapidly became convinced that it was a forgery and seized a court to ask for the cancellation of the sale. The auctioneer and the expert however remied on a 46-page report produced by Mrs Delange and Mrs Desroches-Noblecourt, former head of the department of antiquities at the Louvre, which asserted that the piece was genuine. The work was therefore considered as authentic though the two experts from the Louvre Museum stressed in their report that it had been made some decades after Sesostris' death.
Such unexpected conclusion placed the counsel of the Pinault couple in a difficult position as most French egyptologists did not want to interfere with the report. As as a result, instead of arguing the statue was a fake, he contended that it had not been properly described in the sale catalogue. In order to obtain the cancellation of the sale, his argument was that it had been executed some decades after the pharaoh's death and not during his reign but the court went against the Pinault couple and ordered them on January 31st 2001 to pay the amount due for the statue.
Mr and Mrs.Pinault then decided to appeal against such decision and called on Luc Watrin, Director of the Grepal archaeological research group, to conduct a study so as to prove that the statue was a forgery. The latter thus went on to discover a series of discrepancies regarding the style and the carving of the statue.
In a 342-page study, Luc Watrin challenged the conclusions of the experts of the Louvre Museum and even suggested that their report was somewhat obliging vis-à-vis the vendor notwithstanding the fact that it did not rest on any pertinent scientific basis.
Mr Watrin, who has been regarded by Mrs Desroches-Noblecourt as being simply a tourists' guide in Egypt who had no authority as a researcher, contended that the statue was a blatant fake and received the support of about twenty foreign egyptologists whose letters were attached to his study. All the more, Luc Watrin discovered in Egypt a clandestine studio where rather convincing forgeries regarding the 12th Dynasty period were being produced and from where the Sesostris statue probably originated.
In addition, a statue of the pharaoh carved in the same type of stone and presenting the same errors as the one detected in the statue of Sesostris bought by the Pinault couple now in the musuem of Atlanta ( from the Hakedis collection) was also described as a forgery.
During the hearing before the court of appeal, Mr Pinault relied on a new counsel after asking the legal advisors of his PPR group to take care of the case in order to base their arguments on Mr Watrin's study. However, they could not get the previous verdict reversed as they did not go further than pleading that they had doubts about the authenticity of the statue. The Pinault couple lost again in court on March 25th 2002 but on Mr Watrin's advice asked the Francine Maurer laboratory to carry out an examination of the piece to determine whether it had been carved during or after the pharaoh's reign. Some 43 areas of the statue were then carefully studied and it was found that besides presenting a serious lack of patina it bore traces of modern steel cisors, which pointed to a modern forgery.
Unabashed, Mr Slitine retorted that such an examination proved nothing because the statue had been repolished without forgetting to signal that the court delivered final verdicts in his favour. Therefore, the case was closed in his view.
Meanwhile, Mrs Desroches-Noblecourt and Mrs Delange had stated in their report that it was impossible to conduct an examination on a "metaphoric stone" to determine the exact date of creation of this sculpture. All the more, they made it rather clear that no one could seriously challenge their opinion.
Mrs and Mr Pinault nevertheless refused to give up especially on the ground that Mr Watrin's study and the conclusions of the Maurer laboratory comforted their belief that the Sesostris statue was a fake. The couple thus decided to have the previous court verdicts quashed.