Palestinians ignored as US tycoon ordered to return stolen antiquities to Israel

Hedge-fund billionaire Michael Steinhardt struck a deal with prosecutors in December to surrender 180 stolen items

A Neolithic mask from American billionaire Michael Steinhardt's collection is displayed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. AP

Dozens of artefacts illegally taken from Israel and the Palestinian territories by hedge-fund billionaire Michael Steinhardt should be sent to Israel, US prosecutors have said.

Prosecutors in New York struck a deal with Mr Steinhardt in December to surrender 180 stolen items — including 40 from Israel and the Palestinian territories — to their places of origin.

At the time, they said the victims would see “justice".

Palestinians have attempted to retain control of precious antiquities found in Israeli-occupied territories.

But prosecutors ignored those efforts when they ruled all 40 items taken from Israel and the Palestinian territories should be sent to Israel, AFP reported on Monday.

Prosecutors said: “The looting took place either at an area within Israel's borders or at an area over which Israel exercises legal authority.”

Mr Steinhardt's collection, estimated to be worth $70 million, included a $1.2m piece called Veiled Head of a Female, which was returned to Libya after its looting during civil unrest.

The collection featured multiple items taken from the occupied West Bank, including areas where even Israel recognises Palestinian civilian control.

Emails published by prosecutors between Mr Steinhardt and dealers show his collection included a Carnelian fish amulet from around 600BC and an Iron Age cosmetic spoon, both found in Kom, near Hebron, an area the Palestinian Authority controls.

Michael Steinhardt, whose collection, estimated to be worth $70 million, featured multiple items taken from the occupied West Bank. Bloomberg

Other highly valuable items were found in the West Bank's so-called Area C, a Palestinian territory under full Israeli control.

The prosecutors did not comment when asked by AFP on whether they considered returning any of the items to the Palestinian Authority, even when their own investigation established the Palestinian provenance of pieces.

The Israel Antiquities Authority said the items listed in the Mr Steinhardt case “were stolen, sold and exported out of Israel illegally”, without commenting on those found in Kom.

Wael Hamamra, head of the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Archaeology, said the settlement was unjust.

The collection included “Palestinian archaeological artefacts [that] should be returned to their place of origin”, he told AFP.

Morag Kersel, an archaeology professor at Chicago's DePaul University, described Israel as the “wild west” in the antiquities trade.

Michael Steinhardt's collection included this $1.2m piece 'Veiled Head of a Female', which was returned to Libya after its looting during civil unrest.

Israel has become a black market hotspot in part because it is one of the world's few countries with a legally sanctioned antiquities trade among private dealers.

And, unlike the Palestinian Authority, it has not ratified the 1970 Unesco convention against illicit trade in antiquities.

Israel has tense relations with the Paris-based agency after it became the first in the UN system to accept Palestine as a member state in 2011.

In addition to private markets and auctions, disputed pieces also show up at leading Israeli museums.

The most valuable items in Mr Steinhardt's collection consisted of a five-piece set of stone masks believed to be worth more than $2 million.

Dating back to 7,000BC, they are considered by scholars to be among the oldest masks in the world, used in ceremonies to represent the spirits of the dead.

They were found in the Judaean desert, which spans both Israel and the West Bank. Their provenance remains uncertain, but Hamamra insisted they were looted from Palestinian territory.

Two of the masks remain on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where a plaque that said “on loan from the collection of Judy and Michael Steinhardt” was recently removed.

One of the masks in American billionaire Michael Steinhardt's collection, centre, is displayed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. AP

Chemi Shiff, a researcher at Israel's Emek Shaveh organisation, which works to curb the politicisation of archaeology, said Israeli practices were regularly in breach of binding international rules.

That notably included the 1954 Hague Convention which prohibits excavation in occupied territory unless the site is “under threat” and forbids moving antiquities across borders.

“Israel is obliged by this convention,” Shiff said.

He told AFP that former Israeli military chief Moshe Dayan committed “archaeological theft” when he took a collection of Bronze Age sarcophagi, also displayed in the Israel Museum, from a cemetery in Gaza after the 1967 Six-Day War.

Hamamra said repatriation of artefacts to Palestinian authorities “is our right and the right of future generations,” but admitted that there is currently no organised effort to return antiquities, as “there is limited communication” with Israel on the issue.

Updated: February 28, 2022, 7:49 AM
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