This Europe: Billionaire back in court to claim his pharaoh is a phoney

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The Independent Online

The self-made French billionaire François Pinault was so delighted with his €770,000 purchase of a 2,000-year-old Egyptian antiquity that he invited his friend President Jacques Chirac to admire his new possession over dinner.

His delight did not last long. Soon afterwards, M. Pinault, founder of a business empire that controls Gucci and the Printemps stores, was warned by a German Egyptologist that the statuette might be a fake. M. Pinault, 67, refused to hand over the money to Couteau-Bégarie, a Parisian auction house, and returned the statuette to its German owner.

The result was a row on a pharaonic scale in the world of Egyptology and a five-year legal battle, which returned to the French courts this week.

The disputed object is a seated black granite figure of the Pharaoh Sesostris III, just under two feet tall. Before M. Pinault bought it in 1998, it had been identified by an expert on ancient Egypt, Chakib Slitine, as having been made in the reign of the pharaoh, between 1887 and 1843BC. Then the German Egyptologist told M. Pinault it was, in his opinion, a modern fake, which had been hawked around Europe for 20 years.

M. Pinault's legal challenge was rejected in 2000, and again in 2002, after two of the leading French Egyptologists said it was probably made after Sesostris III died but was still at least 1,900 years old.

M. Pinault refused to let the case drop. Last year, he was obliged to hand over the €770,000 auction price, plus €30,000 in interest. He reclaimed the statuette and immediately submitted it to new tests. Luc Watrin, a young Egyptologist consulted by M. Pinault, declared the figure to be a "crude copy". A laboratory that specialises in dating ancient objects through traces left by workmen's tools declared it was modern and might be no more than a few years old.

Maitre Philippe Combeau, M. Pinault's lawyer, told the first chamber of the Paris court of appeal this week that the laboratory had found traces of work with diamond and chrome tools, neither of which existed in 1,800BC.

Judgment is likely to be delayed for several weeks.