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Looted artifacts worth millions said seized from US collector, a key donor to Israel

23 works held by philanthropist Shelby White noted in search warrants from June 2021, April 2022; some were returned to Italy and Turkey in recent months

Shelby White at the cornerstone laying ceremony for the Lod Mosaic Archaeological Center in 2017. (Raanan Kislev, Israel Antiquities Authority)
Shelby White at the cornerstone laying ceremony for the Lod Mosaic Archaeological Center in 2017. (Raanan Kislev, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Stolen artifacts returned to Italy and Turkey in recent months were seized from the private collection of a prominent American donor to Israel and Jewish causes, US media reported Friday.

Citing search warrants issued by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in June 2021 and April 2022, The Art Newspaper reported that the “US Department of Homeland Security found ‘reasonable cause’ to believe [that 23 works held by philanthropist Shelby White] were stolen.”

The works are evidence of criminal possession of stolen property in various degrees, and conspiracy to commit such crimes, according to the warrants.

Matthew Bogdanos, the chief of the Manhattan DA’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, declined to comment on the matter since the case was still active.

White told the journal: “I really don’t have anything to say.”

White runs the Leon Levy Foundation, named for her late husband. Her foundation has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and funded the preservation of the ancient Lod Mosaic at the Shelby White & Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Archaeological Center near Ben Gurion Airport, which opened in June 2022.

Among the looted objects seized in April was an approximately 1,800-year-old life-sized bronze statue of the Roman Emperor Lucius Verus, worth $15 million, and four parts of a $1 million Anatolian columned sarcophagus from the second century, which were returned to Turkey in October, according to the report.

The pieces were unveiled at the Antalya Museum in November. The US Consulate in Istanbul said the antiquities were looted in illegal digs, then smuggled to the US over 50 years ago.

According to a list on the Looting Matters blog, several works that were formerly part of White’s collection were repatriated to Italy in September, including an approximately 2,500-year-old red-figure calyx krater (a bowl used for mixing wine and water) worth $3 million.

The Art Newspaper noted a “Bronze Bust of Man” also valued at $3 million from the first century BCE and a cauldron with four animal heads from the sixth century BCE worth $150,000, were also returned to Italy.

Lod mosaic during conservation work. (Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority)

White’s collection has found itself in the spotlight in the past. A study in 2000 by archeologists David Gill and Christopher Chippindale found that 93% of pieces White and Levy put on display a decade earlier were of unknown origin.

In 2008, the donor returned 10  artifacts to Italy and two to Greece, then in 2011, a statue’s torso to Turkey.

Gill told the Art Newspaper that he believed it was “very telling” the authorities had not specifically said the pieces belonged to White, and that the seizures were likely part of a larger probe.

“Clearly, they’ve acquired a number of objects that have been dug up illicitly and removed from their countries of origin outside the legal framework,” Gill said.

“I’m sure they would say they’ve acquired things in good faith. But the scale of looting that we know — they needed to have done their due diligence before they acquired it. And museums need to do their due diligence when they’re accepting loans,” he added.

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