The looted Greek stele known as the Heliodorus Stele is still on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem despite being one of many items that were part of a plea deal in the infamous smuggling case of Michael Steinhardt artifacts.
The 81-year-old New York billionaire, who was a well-known hedge fund manager, agreed to a late 2021 plea deal with the Manhattan district attorney in one of the world’s biggest looting and smuggling cases art of history.
Steinhardt returned $ 70 million in antiques and art, or 179 different items, which had been smuggled out of Europe and Asia to be collected as part of his vast collection. Over time, he had even loaned certain pieces to institutions, including the august Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Met even has an entire gallery – the Judy and Michael Steinhardt Gallery – named after the couple.
The antiques in Steinhardt’s collection which will be returned to Greece come from the Cyclades islands, Crete, central Greece, Samos and Rhodes. They include a number of bronze swords, figurines, a Minoan shrine, a bronze griffin bust, and a kouros statue.
The titan’s hedge fund and philanthropist collection of nearly 200 priceless antiques from at least 11 countries, including Greece, Egypt, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, was one of the largest assemblages in art plundered from the world.
The hedge fund manager escaped legal action thanks to the plea deal, hosted by Manhattan DA Cy Vance.
The Associated Press reports that eight Neolithic-era masks that were on loan from Steinhardt to the Israel Museum in 2014 were also seized as part of the billionaire’s deal with the DA – and two of them are also exhibited at the Jerusalem Museum.
The Israel Museum declares in its catalog that the stele is “unique”, adding that it “offers new insight into the dramatic history of Heliodorus and the Temple in Jerusalem, as recounted in the Second Book of the Maccabees. The newly deciphered stele presents new information about Heliodorus, who according to the Second Book of the Maccabees was ordered to seize the treasure from the temple in Jerusalem.
“The stele documents a correspondence in ancient Greek between Heliodorus and King Seleucus IV, ruler of the Seleucid Empire from 187 to 175 BC.
Steinhardt handed over ownership of The Heliodorus Stele last month, but it’s still on display this week – along with his name as the owner – at the museum.
As one of the museum’s main patrons, Steinhardt approached the institution’s officials in 2007, asking if they would borrow the stele, telling them he had bought it recently.
However, museum experts quickly noticed that pieces of text carved into two stones that had been unearthed a year earlier during an excavation near Jerusalem matched the limestone slab like pieces of a puzzle.
Obviously, the Steinhardt tablet must have come from the same cave where the other fragments were found.
The revelation that the stele and other artifacts handed over by Steinhardt are still on display in the museum as if nothing has changed as to their provenance is troubling at a time when museums around the world face increased calls for the repatriation of works from stolen and looted art. .
As has happened so often throughout human history, objects of immense artistic and historical significance have often been uprooted from their place of origin, with some collectors claiming to be of service to countries. whose art was stolen by “saving” protecting them from possible destruction during wars and other conflicts.
But growing calls for the repatriation of these objects worry curators and museum directors around the world.
Donna Yates, an artefact smuggler criminologist at Maastricht University, told The Associated Press that several recent scandals involving looted artefacts “are leading museums to reconsider the ownership history of some of the artefacts that have been looted. ‘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 a lot of them occupy a place of public trust,” she said. .
The Israel Museum denied any wrongdoing in a statement, saying it “consistently follows applicable regulations when works are on loan”, adding that all of its policies are carried out “in full cooperation” with the Israel Authority. antiques.
Related: Steinhardt’s Looted Antiques Will Return To Greece
For his part, James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum from 1997 to 2016, told reporters that all artifacts acquired or loaned to the Museum are subject to a provenance investigation by the IAA before being exposed. He further stated that Steinhardt’s other looted works of art “were also accompanied by documents of legal ownership.
“We have received legal purchase documents, it has been approved for loan and it has been approved for return” by the authority, Snyder told the AP.
However, Israel has an unusual configuration in that all 55 licensed antique dealers in the country are licensed to sell artefacts discovered prior to 1978, when all such artefacts became state property.
Unfortunately, this loophole provided an outlet for the “laundering” of smuggled and looted antiques from all over the Middle East, with false documents provided by Israeli merchants. It is not known how many of these objects may have fallen victim to this practice before the country began to close the loophole in 2016.
It was only then that Israel began to force the creation of a digital database of merchant artifacts.
The thousands of priceless cuneiform tablets originating in what is now Iraq and Syria that were part of the infamous Hobby Lobby case had been smuggled to Israeli dealers before being sold to collectors with such false documentation. .
It’s all about the money, and there is no shortage of wealthy people who feel the need to own these priceless artifacts. Morag Kersel, professor of archeology at DePaul University in Illinois, explains that the unreasonable looting of archaeological sites, ultimately, “is entirely driven by demand.”
Related: The Greek Archaeologist Who Helped To Expose Michael Steinhardt
“The looters do this because there is someone like Steinhardt who is willing to pay money and buy things straight out of the earth,” she says.
Steinhardt is a major patron of the Israel Museum as well as many other institutions across the country, including a natural history museum at Tel Aviv University named after him.
Partial information on U.S. tax returns shows that Steinhardt’s family foundation has donated more than $ 6.6 million to the Israel Museum since 2001.
It was only after Steinhardt loaned a sculpture of a bull’s head that had been looted from an archaeological site in Lebanon to the Metropolitan Museum of Art that the Manhattan DA launched its investigation into the huge collection of antiques. from the hedge fund manager.
Legally, Vance’s office says the three items on display at the Israel Museum are “effectively seized on the spot.” The DA has entered into talks with Israel in the hope that 28 more items may one day be returned to their rightful owners, but its statement indicates that Steinhardt “has not been able to locate” the last nine items whose provenance is can be attributed to Israel.
For its part, the Israel Museum said it was examining the matter after recently learning of the settlement’s existence. The prosecutor’s office accused in the settlement that Steinhardt “knew, or should have ascertained by reasonable investigation” that his antiques had been looted and smuggled.