Monday, January 10, 2022

Steinhardt artifacts at the Israel Museum

PROBLEM ARTIFACTS: Billionaire's looted art still on display at Israel Museum (Ilan Ben Zion, PhysOrg.).
One of the Israel Museum's biggest patrons, American billionaire Michael Steinhardt, approached the flagship Israeli art institution in 2007 with an artifact he had recently bought: a 2,200-year-old Greek text carved into limestone.

But shortly after it went on display, an expert noticed something odd—two chunks of text found a year earlier during a dig near Jerusalem fit the limestone slab like a jigsaw puzzle. It soon became clear that Steinhardt's tablet came from the same cave where the other fragments were excavated.

Last month, Steinhardt surrendered the piece, known as the Heliodorus Stele, and 179 other artifacts valued at roughly $70 million as part of a landmark deal with the Manhattan District Attorney's office to avoid prosecution. Eight Neolithic masks loaned by Steinhardt to the Israel Museum for a major exhibition in 2014 were also seized under the deal, including two that remain exhibited at the museum.


I have been following the Steinhardt saga, but have not posted on it until now. This is the first time it has overlapped with PaleoJudaica's interests. You can read the full story, for example, in this Live Science article by Ben Turner: Billionaire hands over $70 million of stolen artifacts. The haul includes stone death masks and a chest for human remains. Executive summary:
A billionaire hedge-fund manager has surrendered 180 stolen artifacts worth $70 million and has received a lifetime ban on acquiring more relics as part of a deal struck with the Manhattan district attorney's office.
No one is accusing the Israel Museum of any wrongdoing. According to the PhysOrg article, the Manhattan DA says that the three objects still on display "are 'effectively seized in place.'" The DA "has opened talks with Israel to coordinate the return of" some artifacts.

As for the artifacts discussed in the current article, I posted on the Heliodorus inscription here, here, here, and here. By the end of 2009 it was clear that it was genuine, after fragments of it were excavated at Maresha. There were also serious concerns by then about whether it had been looted. The Greek City Times has an article on this object: US billionaire’s stolen ancient Greek Heliodorus Stele remain on display at Israel Museum. The other two surrended artifacts still on display there are the abovementioned neolithic masks.

I don't think I knew about the Royal Moabite Inscription loaned to the Israel Museum by Steinhardt. It is on display at the Israel Museum, but is not part of the Mahattan DA's looting investigation.

The best-known Moabite inscription is, of course, the Mesha Stele (or Moabite stone), on which PaleoJudaica has many posts. Another fragment of a lapidary inscription in Moabite was found in El-Kerak in 1958. It is in the Jordan Archaeological Museum. And 2019 saw the publication of an inscribed Moabite altar that was excavated in Jordan.

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