CAIRO, Egypt - Egypt's antiquities czar took his campaign to recover the nation's lost treasures to a new level on Wednesday by cutting ties with one of the world's premier museums, the Louvre, over disputed artifacts.
The Paris museum's refusal to return painted wall fragments of a 3,200-year-old tomb near the ancient temple city of Luxor could jeopardize its future excavations in Egypt.
It was the most aggressive effort yet by Zahi Hawass, Egypt's tough and media savvy chief archaeologist, in his campaign to reclaim what he says are antiquities stolen from the country and purchased by some of the world's leading museums.
His move appeared to have borne fruit almost immediately. Both the Louvre and France's Culture Ministry said they were ready to return the pieces.
"The Louvre Museum refused to return four archaeological reliefs to Egypt that were stolen during the 1980s from the tomb of the noble Tetaki," said a statement quoting Supreme Council of Antiquities chief Hawass.
This was not the first time Hawass cut ties with a museum. He took a similar step against the St. Louis Art Museum after it failed to answer his demand to return a 3,200-year-old golden burial mask of a noblewoman. But taking such an action against an institution of the Louvre's stature is unprecedented.
Egypt immediately suspended the Louvre's excavation in the massive necropolis of Saqqara, near Cairo, and cancelled a lecture in Egypt by a former curator from the museum.
Thousands of antiquities were spirited out of the country during Egypt's colonial period and afterward by archaeologists, adventurers and thieves.
Hawass' office described the disputed fragments as pieces of a burial fresco showing the nobleman Tetaki's journey to the afterlife and said thieves chipped them from the walls of the tomb near the Valley of the Kings in the 1980s.
Christiane Ziegler, the former curator of the Louvre's Egyptology department, acquired the four fragments, according to the antiquities council. She will now not be allowed to give a scheduled lecture in Egypt.
The French said there were five fragments, while the Egyptians report four. There was no way to immediately reconcile the discrepancy.
French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand said he believes the artifacts should be returned and the pieces were acquired by the Louvre in "good faith" in 2000 and 2003.
"It wasn't until November 2008, after archaeologists rediscovered the tomb from which the frescoes appear to have come, that serious doubts emerged about the legality of their removal from Egyptian territory," a statement from Mitterrand's office said.
The Louvre's press office said a national committee made up of specialists from France's museum world and other experts will meet to decide whether to return the artifacts, with final approval given by the Culture Ministry.
Mitterrand said he asked the committee to meet Friday.
If the committee favours returning the pieces to Egypt, Mitterrand's office said he is "ready to immediately return the frescoes to Egyptian authorities."
The readiness of the museum to work with Hawass could well stem from his total power to determine whose expeditions get to explore the continuing wealth of ancient artifacts in Egypt.
Hawass is well known around the world for his numerous television appearances in his trademark fedora showcasing newly discovered antiquities. Soon after becoming Egyptian antiquities head, he declared that Egypt was not deal with any museum purchasing or exhibiting what Egypt considered stolen artifacts.
Hawass has drawn up a list of high profile items he wants back including another piece held by the Louvre, the painted ceiling of the Dendera temple showing the Zodiac.
At the top of his list are the bust of Nefertiti - wife of the famed monotheistic Pharaoh Akhenaten - and the Rosetta Stone, a basalt slab with an inscription that was the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. The bust is in Berlin's Egyptian Museum; the Rosetta Stone is in the British Museum in London.
He has also asked for the return of the bust of Achhaf, the builder of the Chephren Pyramid from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and a statue of the Hemiunu, the nephew of Pharaoh Khufu from Germany's Roemer-Pelizaeu museum.
He says so far he has recovered 5,000 artifacts since becoming antiquities head in 2002.
In one of the most acrimonious fights, Hawass has repeatedly requested the return of a 3,200-year-old golden mask of a noblewoman from the St. Louis Art Museum and has since cut ties with the museum and called on people to boycott its collection.
He recently succeeding in winning the return from France of hair stolen from the mummy of the Pharaoh Ramses II.
The process of repatriating cultural heritage is complicated by inadequate local and international laws and many museums maintain they acquire their artifacts legally and in a transparent manner.
Determining whether an artifact has even been stolen requires delicate co-operation between government, law enforcement, museums, and antiquities dealers. And frequently, there are gaps in the historical records.