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French Version

Princely gift from Saudi billionaire to house Louvre's Islamic art

The Louvre, once a royal fortress and today the world's largest museum, will get a new wing to showcase its vast collection of Islamic art thanks to a multi-million dollar gift by a Saudi prince bent on mending post-September 11, 2001 ties between the West and Arabs.

The museum's 10,000-piece collection of art from the Islamic world rivals those of the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but is rarely seen for lack of display space.

Architectural plans were unveiled Wednesday for the 4,000-square-meter wing, to be built by architects Mario Bellini from Italy and Rudi Ricciotti of France and scheduled to open in 2009.

Nearly a third of the project cost is being underwritten by Saudi Prince Al-Walid bin Talal, whose 17 million euro gift is one of the largest in France's history, French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres said at a ceremony Tuesday.

"Your gesture is a testament to the generosity of the Islamic world," the minister said.

The French state and oil company Total will cover most of the balance, chipping in 26 million and four million euros ($31.2 and $4.8 million) respectively, with the rest coming from future donors.

The decision to create a new department of Islamic art in the Louvre came from French President Jacques Chirac, who is said to maintain very good relations with Prince Walid.

A statement from Chirac's office said the president was "particularly attached" to the project. It will reinforce the avocation of the Louvre - which houses such priceless treasures as Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" and is visited by over six million people a year - as a world cultural heritage center, it said.

The media-shy prince - who declined any comment during Tuesday's signing ceremony at the Louvre - is one of the richest individuals on the planet, with a fortune estimated at $20 billion (16.6 billion euros).

More than an astute businessman whose taste for luxury has led him to purchase some of the world's most elegant hotels, including The George V in Paris and the Plaza in New York, he is a generous philanthropist who says his gifts total $100 million (83 million euros) a year.

In his ultra-conservative native Saudi Arabia, he has also promoted social reform. But the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States brought a new imperative - working to improve relations between the West and the Arab world, in his own words, "both publicly and secretly."

This latest endeavor will allow the Louvre to showcase much more of what critics have called one of the greatest collections of Islamic art in existence.

Only some 1,300 objects from the Louvre's Islamic collection are currently on display. The collection is especially strong in medieval Persian and Arab art and the Ottoman Empire and claims one of the world's most prestigious collections of ancient Oriental carpets.

It also has major archaeological holdings and an archive of papyrus documents from the first centuries of Islam.

Beirut,08 01 2005
The Daily Star
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