By Asaf Shalev
Eight of the looted artifacts that billionaire philanthropist Michael Steinhardt must return to Israel as part of a deal with prosecutors in New York are still missing.
That’s according to a press release on Tuesday from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office announcing that $5 million in stolen antiquities previously belonging to Steinhardt are being repatriated to Israel, where Steinhardt is a prominent donor to cultural institutions.
Steinhardt, 81, is also one of the founders of Birthright, a program that offers young Jews in the diaspora free trips to Israel.
Three of the repatriated items were already on display at the Israel Museum, which years ago had borrowed them from Steinhardt. Israeli authorities on Tuesday took possession of an additional 28 artifacts. The repatriated antiquities include two 7,000-year-old gold masks valued at $500,000 and three even older stone masks worth $650,000.
Several of the items being transferred to Israeli custody were originally looted from the West Bank. One missing object, a fish-shaped amulet, will be handed over to the Palestinian Authority if and when it’s found.
“These rare and beautiful artifacts, which are thousands of years old, have been kept from the public because of illegal looting and trafficking,” Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said in a statement. “My office is proud to once again return historic antiquities to where they rightfully belong.
A multi-year criminal investigation, which included several search warrants served at Steinhardt’s home and office, turned up evidence that Steinhardt possessed numerous looted antiquities. While authorities have seized many of them, there are some they never managed to find. These include an ancient sword, seven ivory figurines and the fish-shaped amulet.
The repatriation is a result of a deal struck between prosecutors and Steinhardt in December. To avoid prosecution, Steinhardt agreed to surrender 180 items authorities say he acquired illegally in Israel and 10 other countries. He’s also prohibited from ever trading in antiquities again.
Steinhardt did not admit to wrongdoing in the agreement, and his lawyers have said that the dealers he bought the objects from deceived him about their legality.
Eitan Klein, deputy director of the theft prevention unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority, participated in a repatriation ceremony held by prosecutors in New York Tuesday.
“These antiquities are priceless for the State of Israel and its people,” Klein said in a statement. “They symbolize our rich and vast cultural heritage. Now, they are being returned to their rightful owners.”
According to previous reporting by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Klein’s agency had signed off on at least one of Steinhardt’s acquisitions.
Perhaps the most important of Steinhardt’s items from a Jewish perspective, the Heliodorus Stele is a stone slab bearing a royal decree from the period leading up to the Maccabean Revolt more than two thousand years ago. Steinhardt bought it from an antiquities trafficker in 2006 and proceeded to give it to the Israel Museum on a long-term loan.
The Israel Antiquities Authority was informed when the artifact was on the market and did not act to stop its sale. The agency also stood by after additional scrutiny by archaeologists revealed where the object was located before it was looted.
While some in Israel criticized the relationship between Steinhardt and the Israeli cultural institutions he supports in the wake of the revelations about his dealings in looted antiquities, many more Israeli figures seemed to come to his defense, arguing that his contributions to the country outweigh whatever he is alleged to have done.