US returns Michael Steinhardt’s looted antiquities to Jordan

American and Jordanian authorities’ press statements about ceremony in Amman make no mention of billionaire, who agreed to surrender trafficked artifacts to avoid prosecution

Stolen antiquities, seized from collector and billionaire hedge fund founder Michael Steinhardt, are displayed at a news conference at the offices of the Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg in New York, Feb. 23, 2022. (David R. Martin/AP)
Stolen antiquities, seized from collector and billionaire hedge fund founder Michael Steinhardt, are displayed at a news conference at the offices of the Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg in New York, Feb. 23, 2022. (David R. Martin/AP)

American authorities have returned nine looted artifacts to Jordan that were seized from a US billionaire collector as part of a landmark deal announced in December.

The artifacts were among 180 items seized by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office as part of an agreement with collector Michael Steinhardt to surrender trafficked artifacts and avoid prosecution. The deal capped a four-year investigation into Steinhardt’s possession of looted antiquities.

The Jordanian Antiquities Ministry and the US Embassy in Jordan held a ceremony in Jordan’s capital, Amman, on Tuesday showcasing the objects that were “illegally smuggled from Jordan and obtained by an antiquities collector in the United States,” the embassy said in a statement.

“This is a testament to the United States’ commitment to help protect Jordan’s cultural heritage. With today’s repatriation of Jordanian antiquities, we are keeping this promise,” Ambassador Henry T. Wooster said.

The American and Jordanian authorities’ press statements did not mention Steinhardt by name, but seven of the artifacts that appeared in photos published by the ministry matched the description of Jordanian items in court documents.

Two ancient Jewish tombstones that were plundered from Jordan and bought by Steinhardt from an Israeli antiquities dealer did not appear in photos from the press conference. The director of the Jordanian Antiquities Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Since the Manhattan District Attorney’s office announced the agreement in December, US authorities have returned Steinhardt’s plundered artifacts to Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Libya, Iraq, and now Jordan. Steinhardt was not accused of plundering any items himself and has said he did not commit any crime. But the DA’s office said he “knew, or should have ascertained by reasonable inquiry” that the antiquities were stolen.

More than two dozen artifacts that had been plundered from Israel and the West Bank are expected to be returned to Israeli authorities later this month, the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) said.

Of the 40 artifacts being repatriated to Israel as part of the deal, at least 22 are believed to have been plundered from West Bank sites, according to court documents. Steinhardt “has been unable to locate” nine of those pieces, and another three are on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The museum recently removed Steinhardt’s name from the display label for two Neolithic masks he had loaned.

A Neolithic mask loaned by American billionaire Michael Steinhardt, center, is displayed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Jan. 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

The DA’s office said the artifacts from the West Bank will be returned to the Israeli government “pursuant to the Oslo Accords,” the 1995 interim agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which says the return of West Bank artifacts to the Palestinians should be resolved in a still-elusive final peace deal.

Jihad Yassin, a Palestinian Tourism and Antiquities Ministry official, said that the materials that came from the West Bank should be returned to the Palestinians, and that his department was preparing to submit a report to UNESCO about the issue.

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

The collection included “Palestinian archaeological artifacts (that) should be returned to their place of origin,” he told AFP.

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.

Financier and philanthropist Michael Steinhardt attends the Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala at the Marriott Marquis on May 5, 2016, in New York (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

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.”

The IAA has 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.

Steinhardt, 81, is a hedge fund founder and philanthropist who chairs the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. He is also co-founder of Birthright Israel, an organization that sends young Jews on free trips to Israel and a prominent patron of the Israel Museum and other institutions in the country.

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