US and Palestinian officials held a ceremony in Bethlehem on Thursday to mark the return of a looted antiquity seized from a Jewish American billionaire, in what the sides said was the first time the United States has repatriated a cultural object to the Palestinian Authority.
George Noll, head of the US Office of Palestinian Affairs, gave the “cosmetic spoon” to the PA’s Tourism and Antiquities Minister Rula Maayah.
According to Maayah, the tool — which is from between 700-800 BCE — dates to the Assyrian civilization and was used to pour incense.
Citing information from US investigations, Maayah said the artifact was stolen from an archaeological site near the southern West Bank city of Hebron.
“This artifact is important as it acquires its real scientific and archaeological value in its authentic location,” she was quoted as saying in a statement from the US Office of Palestinian Affairs.
Noll touted his office’s role in returning the spoon, which he called “an example of Palestinian cultural patrimony.”
“This is 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,” he said.
According to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which had confiscated the object from hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt as part of a criminal probe, the spoon first appeared on the market in 2003. A statement from the district attorney’s office said Steinhardt purchased it that year from Israeli antiquities dealer Gil Chaya.
The Manhattan prosecutors have accused Chaya of selling at least 28 stolen antiquities to Steinhardt, a major donor to Jewish philanthropical causes.
“Antiquities trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar business with looters and smugglers turning a profit at the expense of cultural heritage. We are honored to join our partners today in the historic repatriation of this artifact to the Palestinian Authority,” Ivan J. Arvelo, a special agent in charge of US Homeland Security Investigations in New York, said Thursday.
As part of a deal to avoid prosecution, Steinhart agreed in late 2021 to turn over $70 million worth of stolen antiquities that authorities say were illegally acquired in Israel. The agreement also permanently barred him from acquiring antiquities.
Items seized from Steinhardt have previously been returned to authorities in Israel, Greece and Jordan.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.