JERUSALEM – One of the Israel Museum’s greatest patrons, American billionaire Michael Steinhardt, approached Israel’s flagship arts institution in 2007 with an artifact he had recently purchased: a 2,200-year-old Greek text etched in limestone.
But soon after its exposure, an expert noticed something strange – two pieces of text found a year earlier during an excavation near Jerusalem matched the limestone slab like a puzzle. It soon became clear that Steinhardt’s tablet came from the same cave where the other fragments were excavated.
Last month, Steinhardt turned over the piece, known as the Heliodorus Stela, and 179 other artifacts valued at around $ 70 million as part of a landmark deal with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office to avoid prosecution. . Eight Neolithic masks on loan from Steinhardt to the Israel Museum for a large exhibit in 2014 were also seized as part of the deal, two of which remain on display at the museum.
Museums around the world face a closer examination of the provenance – or chain of ownership – of their works of art, especially those looted in conflict zones or illegally looted from archaeological sites. There are more and more calls for these items to be returned to their country of origin.
Donna Yates, an artefact smuggler criminologist at Maastricht University, said several recent scandals involving looted artefacts – such as the return of Cambodian antiques by the Denver Art Museum – “are causing museums to reconsider history of the ownership of some of the items they own. “
“They can’t really afford the embarrassment of the public to be constantly tied to this stuff, because museums are not rich and many of them occupy a place of public trust,” he said. she declared.
In addition to the Heliodorus stele and two of the ancient masks, at least one other artifact belonging to Steinhardt in the Israel Museum is of uncertain provenance: a 2,800-year-old inscription on a black volcanic stone. The museum exhibit indicates that the origin is Moab, an ancient kingdom in present-day Jordan.
How he got to Jerusalem remains unclear.
Steinhardt lent the royal Moabite inscription to the museum in 2002, shortly after purchasing it from an authorized Israeli dealer in Jerusalem, said Amir Ganor, who heads the theft prevention unit of the Antiquities Authority in ‘Israel.
The dealer, who confirmed the deal but spoke on condition of anonymity due to the legal questions surrounding the article, told The Associated Press that he had obtained the registration of a Palestinian colleague in Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank by Israel, which did not specify its origin.
“I don’t know how it happened to the dealer in Jerusalem,” Ganor said. He said it could have come from the West Bank, neighboring Jordan or Dubai, a long-standing antiques hub.
The Israel Museum declined interview requests and refused to show documentation of the artifact.
But in a statement, he denied any wrongdoing, saying he “consistently follows applicable regulations when works are on loan.” He said all exhibits are “in full cooperation” with the Antiquities Authority.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office said the Moabite listing was not part of the Steinhardt investigation and declined to discuss the article.
James Snyder, who was the director of the Israel Museum from 1997 to 2016, said all artefacts coming to the museum have their provenance verified by the IAA before being on display, and other looted works of art from Steinhardt “came with legal property documents.”
âWe have received legal purchase documents, it has been approved for loan and it has been approved for return,â Snyder said.
Israel has a legal antiques market managed by some 55 authorized dealers. They are allowed to sell artefacts discovered before 1978, when a law came into effect making all artifacts the property of the state.
This market has provided an outlet for laundering smuggled and looted antiques from all over the Middle East that receive materials produced by merchants in Israel. Israel began to fill this gap in 2016, when it commissioned a digital database of merchant artifacts.
Israel recently returned smuggled antiques found in merchant stores in Egypt and Libya. Other antiques stolen from Iraq and Syria – including thousands of cuneiform tablets purchased by Hobby Lobby owner Steve Green in 2010 – were smuggled to Israeli dealers before being sold to collectors with documents fraudulent.
Morag Kersel, professor of archeology at DePaul University in Illinois, said the indiscriminate looting of archaeological sites across the Middle East “is ultimately driven entirely by demand.”
âThe looters are doing this because there is someone like Steinhardt who is willing to pay money and buy things straight out of the earth,â she said.
Under the deal, the Manhattan District Attorney has seized 180 Steinhardt artifacts and will repatriate them to their respective countries. Steinhardt also agreed to a lifetime ban on acquiring antiques – although it’s not clear how that ban will be enforced.
Steinhardt, 81, is a long-time patron of the Israel Museum and many other Israeli institutions, including a natural history museum at Tel Aviv University that bears his name. Since 2001, his family foundation has donated more than $ 6.6 million to the Israel Museum, according to partial US tax returns.
Steinhardt was not charged with looting items himself and said he had committed no crime. But the prosecutor’s office said it “knew, or should have ascertained by reasonable investigation” that the antiques had been stolen.
Steinhardt declined an interview request. His office issued a brief statement saying that the Manhattan DA “did not dispute Mr. Steinhardt’s right, title or interest in any of the artifacts” other than those in the colony.
The DA began investigating Steinhardt’s huge collection of antiques in 2017 after loaning a bull’s head sculpture to the Metropolitan Museum of Art that had been looted from a site in Lebanon.
The DA says the three objects at the Israel Museum are “indeed seized there,” and has opened talks with Israel to coordinate the return of 28 additional objects. He said Steinhardt “was unable to locate” the last nine items located in Israel.
Of those 40 artifacts, more than half were allegedly looted from sites in the West Bank, according to court documents. Nine other artifacts from Jordan, many of which were sold to Steinhardt via Israel’s licensed antiques market, are also being repatriated.
Neither the Jordanian government nor the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities responded to requests for comment. Under interim peace accords in the mid-1990s, the fate of items taken from the occupied West Bank must be part of a still elusive peace deal.
The Israel Museum said it only recently learned of the colony’s existence and is currently investigating the matter.
For now, the objects looted in the museum still bear Steinhardt’s name.
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