Hedge-fund billionaire Michael Steinhardt
Hedge-fund billionaire Michael Steinhardt
Photo: Getty Images
Stolen artifacts from the Steinhardt collection

Palestinians claim to be ignored in U.S. deal on stolen antiquities

U.S. court strikes deal with hedge fund to surrender to Israel 180 stolen artifacts from the $70 million collection, featuring items taken from the West Bank after they were 'illegally removed' from Israel

AFP |
Published: 02.28.22, 11:07
When U.S. prosecutors struck a deal with a hedge-fund billionaire to surrender 180 stolen artifacts to their places of origin, they insisted victims of his plunder would see "justice".
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  • But Palestinians doubted it would apply to them. They saw Michael Steinhardt's December agreement with prosecutors in Manhattan as yet another setback in their ill-fated quest to retain control of precious antiquities found in Israeli territories.
    4 View gallery
    The Stolen antiquities
    The Stolen antiquities
    Stolen artifacts from the Steinhardt collection
    (Photo: AP)
    Steinhardt's collection, estimated to be worth $70 million, featured multiple items taken from the West Bank, including areas where even Israel recognizes Palestinian civilian control.
    Emails published by prosecutors between Steinhardt and dealers show his collection included a Carnelian fish amulet from around 600 BC and an Iron Age cosmetic spoon, both found in Kom, near Hebron, an area the Palestinian Authority controls.
    Other, highly valuable, items were found in the West Bank's so-called Area C, a Palestinian territory under full Israeli control.
    4 View gallery
    Hedge-fund billionaire Michael Steinhardt
    Hedge-fund billionaire Michael Steinhardt
    Hedge-fund billionaire Michael Steinhardt
    (Photo: Getty Images)
    But the New York prosecutors said all 40 of the items illegally taken from Israel and the Palestinian territories should be returned to Israel.
    Justifying the decision, they said: "The looting took place either at an area within Israel's borders or at an area over which Israel exercises legal authority."
    It was a jarring conclusion for Palestinian officials, as it appeared to back Israeli ownership of all West Bank artifacts, regardless of where they were found.
    The prosecutors did not comment when asked 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 (IAA) said that, from their perspective, the items listed in the 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 Steinhardt settlement was unjust.
    4 View gallery
    Dozens of looted antiquities seized from collector and billionaire hedge fund founder Michael Steinhardt
    Dozens of looted antiquities seized from collector and billionaire hedge fund founder Michael Steinhardt
    Dozens of looted antiquities seized from collector and billionaire hedge fund founder Michael Steinhardt
    (Photo: AP)
    The collection included "Palestinian archaeological artifacts (that) should be returned to their place of origin", he said.
    Morag Kersel, an archaeology professor at Chicago's DePaul University, described Israel as the "wild west" in the antiquities trade.
    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 United Nations 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 Steinhardt's collection were a five-piece set of stone masks believed to be worth more than two million dollars.
    Dated from 7,000 BC, they are considered by scholars to be among the oldest masks in the world, used in ceremonies to represent the spirits of the dead.
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    A sculpture of a young man from about 560 B.C., known as a kouros
    A sculpture of a young man from about 560 B.C., known as a kouros
    A sculpture of a young man from about 560 B.C., known as a kouros part of the looted Steinhardt collection
    (Photo: AP)
    They were found in the Judean 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.
    Chemi Shiff, a researcher at Israel's Emek Shaveh organization that works to curb the politicization 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 said 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 artifacts to Palestinian authorities "is our right and the right of future generations," but admitted that there is currently no organized effort to return antiquities, as "there is limited communication" with Israel on the issue.
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