US repatriates its first looted relic to Palestine

A repatriation ceremony held in Bethlehem last month marked the first time the US has repatriated an item to Palestinian authorities. The object in question was one of the 180 stolen artifacts uncovered in the collection of American billionaire Michael Steinhardt last year. Steinhardt has since received a lifetime ban from collecting antiquities.

The item returned is an ivory spoon, dating to approximately 800 to 700 B.C.E. It has been called a “cosmetic spoon”, as it was used by the Assyrian civilisation who lived in the area at the time to pour incense onto fires or used in ceremonies. It is believed to have been stolen from the Khirbet al-Koum area in Hebron in the West Bank.

Steinhardt acquired the object in 2003, when it appeared on the international art market for the first time and was sold by Israeli antiquities dealer, Gil Chaya, who has since been accused of selling hundreds of looted Israeli and Middle Eastern objects, 28 of which were sold to Steinhardt. It is further evidence in support of the contention that Steinhardt was aware that the object had been illegally acquired; investigators located emails which included a conversation about the item and the fact that it had been stolen. Indeed, it has been said that Steinhardt often acquired objects which he knew to be looted. Cyrus Vance, the Manhattan District Attorney at the time when Steinhardt was ordered to surrender his collection, said that, “his pursuit of ‘new’ additions to showcase and sell knew no geographic or moral boundaries, as reflected in the sprawling underworld of antiquities traffickers, crime bosses, money launderers, and tomb raiders he relied upon to expand his collection”.

Objects from Steinhardt’s collection were returned to Libya, Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria early in 2022. However, Palestinians were concerned last year that they may not receive objects looted from Steinhardt’s collection. The emails that revealed Steinhardt was aware that the objects he purchased were stolen showed that he was in possession of not only the cosmetic spoon, but also a Carnelian fish amulet, as well as other items found in the West Bank’s Area C which is a Palestinian territory under Israeli control. To the Palestinian people’s dismay, New York prosecutors said that these items looted from Palestine, as well as those taken from Israel, would all be returned to Israel. They explained that, “the looting took place either at an area within Israel’s borders or at an area over which Israel exercised legal authority.” However, as this repatriation shows, it appears they reconsidered this decision.

Rula Maayah, the Palestinian minister of tourism and antiquities, met with the American representatives, and said that, “this artifact is important as it acquires its real scientific and archaeological value in its authentic location”. George Noll, the chief of the US Office of Palestinian Affairs, described the repatriation ceremony as “a historic moment between the American and Palestinian people and a demonstration of our belief in the power of cultural exchanges in building mutual understanding, respect and partnership.”

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