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La Débâcle Chauvet Volume 50 Number 2, March/April 1997
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

The stunning discovery of Palaeolithic wall paintings in the Chauvet Cave at Vallon-Pont-d'Arc in southern France has been clouded by an almost equally stunning array of legal disputes that have kept the grotto closed to researchers. Found by Jean-Marie Chauvet, a government guard of prehistoric sites, the cave was hailed as the most important cave-art discovery of the century and its images compared to those at Lascaux.

The French government is trying to appropriate the land above the cave, offering its owners 25,000 francs (about $5,000). But the three owners, asserting that the government's estimate does not recognize potential tourist revenue from the cave, are demanding 70 million francs ($14 million). French law requires that judges in condemnation hearings physically see the property in question. The judge assigned to the case was unable to enter the narrow tunnel to the cave and ordered that the entrance be widened. A larger entrance will allow researchers to move in equipment to monitor the cave's climate, a necessary step before a new entrance is dug that will allow greater access for scientists.

Meanwhile, Jean-Marie Chauvet is seeking an injunction to stop the Ministry of Culture from selling his videotape of the cave to television stations at 3,000 francs (about $600) a minute. According to the Paris newspaper Le Figaro, Chauvet has complained that he realized no profit from the sale of the video. He has offered more than 200 of his photographs of the cave for sale through Sygma, an international photo agency. The ministry has subpoenaed Sygma and Chauvet in an attempt to recover the pictures, claiming that as a government guard Chauvet was acting as "an agent of the state" when he discovered the cave. As evidence, the ministry produced a letter from a regional cultural affairs director granting Chauvet permission to explore the area. For his part, Chauvet claims that he was not on duty when he found the caves and that the letter was forged and predated to cheat him out of revenue from the photographs.

The cave's three owners have won a suit against the Ministry of Culture contending that the agency never obtained permission from them to sell the photographs or the video of the cave art. A lower court judge ruled that the landowners were entitled to a share of the sales, and an expert has been appointed to determine appropriate compensation.

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America