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2 October 2010
French president gains access to threatened cave art

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni, treated themselves to a visit to the most secretive - and most threatened - art gallery in the world: the Lascaux caves in the Dordogne. The visit of an eight strong presidential party to the fragile underground chambers, which contain 900 of the most perfect surviving examples of prehistoric art, was controversial. The caves, banned to the public since 1963, have been menaced in recent years by a series of unexplained, and only partially controlled, fungal invasions.
     Any human presence in the caves is regarded as potentially destructive. Normally, they are entered only once a week by one security guard for a few minutes at a time. However, the eight people in the presidential party spent 30 minutes in the 200-metre-long complex of caves. They were under strict instructions to keep moving and to avoid staring at individual paintings. To 'compensate' for the heat and humidity of their presence, normal security checks were cancelled for two weeks.
     Mr Sarkozy appeared to be deeply moved by his visit, that marked the 70th anniversary of the accidental discovery of the site by four 13-year-old boys and a dog in September 1940. The paintings at Lascaux, now perhaps the best known of all cave paintings, exceeded in quality and quantity anything that had previously been found in Europe.
     Lascaux was closed to the public in 1963 to protect the caves from just the kind of fungal infections which have appeared in the last nine years. In February 2009, Unesco threatened to humiliate France by placing Lascaux on its list of endangered sites of universal importance. This followed a series of botched, and then partially successful, attempts to fight off first white, and then ugly grey and black fungi, which began to creep over the paintings in 2001.
     Ms Léauté-Beasley's independent committee of concerned scientists has complained that the French government has imposed an omerta, or veil of secrecy, on the site. A new curator appointed last year, Muriel Mauriac, says that the stricter controls on climate within the caves have begun to remove the fungi. "But we have still a long way to go before we understand the origins of this crisis," she said.

Edited from The Idependent (13 September 2010)

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