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Artifacts seized from U.S. billionaire returned to Israel

March 22, 2022 Karen Matthews and Ilan Ben Zion, Associated Press
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Prosecutors in New York announced the repatriation Tuesday of $5 million worth of looted antiquities seized from billionaire hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt to Israel, where Steinhardt is well known as a patron of cultural institutions.

The 39 items being returned to Israel include two gold masks dating from about 5000 B.C. that are valued at $500,000 and a set of three death masks that date from 6000 to 7000 B.C. and are worth a total of $650,000, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said.

“These rare and beautiful artifacts, which are thousands of years old, have been kept from the public because of illegal looting and trafficking,” Bragg said. “My office is proud to once again return historic antiquities to where they rightfully belong.”

The objects that authorities say were illegally acquired in Israel are part of $70 million worth of stolen antiquities that Steinhardt agreed to turn over in December in a deal to avoid prosecution.

Under the agreement, Steinhardt is permanently barred from acquiring antiquities. Items seized from Steinhardt have previously been returned to authorities in Greece and Jordan.

A message seeking comment on Tuesday’s announcement was sent to an attorney for Steinhardt. His attorneys have said previously that the dealers from whom Steinhardt bought antiquities represented to him that they held lawful title to the artifacts.

Of the 39 objects that are to be repatriated to Israel, 28 were turned over to Israeli authorities Tuesday. Three were already on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and eight have not yet been located but will be returned as soon as they are found, the district attorney’s office said. Several of the artifacts returned to Israel were looted from the occupied West Bank.

Additionally, a 3,000-year-old spoon that was used to ladle incense onto fires is being held for Palestinian authorities, prosecutors said.

Eitan Klein, deputy director of the theft prevention unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said the antiquities “are priceless for the state of Israel and its people. They symbolize our rich and vast cultural heritage. Now, they are being returned to their rightful owners.”

Klein said his office was proud to be part of the investigation into the plundered artifacts along with the district attorney and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Steinhardt, 81, founded the hedge fund Steinhardt Partners in 1967 and closed it in 1995. He came out of retirement in 2004 to head Wisdom Tree Investments.

Steinhardt has been a major donor to Jewish philanthropies and is a co-founder of Birthright, a program that brings North American Jewish youth on a free trip Israel. He is a patron of the Israel Museum, which houses three of the artifacts confiscated by the Manhattan district attorney’s office, as well as several other Israeli cultural institutions including a natural history museum at Tel Aviv University that bears his name.

Following the AP’s reporting that Steinhardt’s name still appeared on his looted artifacts at the Israel Museum, the Hebrew-language daily Haaretz published an editorial calling for his name to be removed from the institution’s walls.

The Israel Museum has removed Steinhardt’s name from the labels of two Neolithic masks exhibited in its galleries.

The Israel Antiquities Authority said that upon their return to Israel, the artifacts confiscated from Steinhardt will be housed in a storage facility outside Jerusalem, and that there were no immediate plans to exhibit them to the public.

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