JERUSALEM: 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 the 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.
Museums worldwide are facing greater scrutiny over the provenance — or chain of ownership — of their art, particularly
those looted from conflict zones or illegally plundered from archaeological sites. There are growing calls for such items to be returned to their countries
Donna Yates, a criminologist specializing in artifact smuggling at Maastricht University, said that several recent scandals involving looted artifacts — such as the Denver Art Museum’s return of Cambodian antiquities — are “causing museums to reconsider the ownership history of some of the objects that they have.”
“They can’t really afford the public embarrassment of constantly being linked to this kind of thing, because museums aren’t wealthy and many of
them hold a place of public trust,” she said.
In addition to the Heliodorus Stele and two of the ancient masks, at least one other Steinhardt-owned artifact in the Israel Museum is of uncertain provenance: A 2,800-year-old inscription on black volcanic stone. The museum’s display states the origin as Moab, an ancient kingdom in modern-day Jordan.
How it got to Jerusalem remains unclear.
Steinhardt gave the Royal Moabite Inscription to the museum on extended loan in 2002, shortly after buying it from a licensed Israel dealer in Jerusalem, said Amir Ganor, who heads the Israel Antiquities Authority’s theft prevention unit.
That dealer, who confirmed the deal but spoke on condition of anonymity because of the legal questions surrounding the item, told The Associated Press that he obtained the inscription from a Palestinian colleague in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, who didn’t specify its provenance.
“I don’t know how it got to the dealer in Jerusalem,” Ganor said. He said it could have come from the West Bank, neighboring Jordan or through Dubai, a longtime antiquities hub.
The Israel Museum rejected interview requests and refused to show the artifact’s documentation.
But in a statement, it denied wrongdoing, saying it “consistently follows the applicable regulations at the time the works are loaned.” It said all displays are “in full cooperation” with the antiquities authority.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office said the Moabite Inscription wasn’t part of the Steinhardt investigation and declined to discuss the item.
James Snyder, who was the Israel Museum’s director from 1997 to 2016, said all
artifacts coming to the museum have their provenance checked
by the IAA before they’re exhibited, and that Steinhardt’s other looted artworks “came with documentation of legal ownership.”
“We were given documentation of legal purchase, it was approved to come in on loan and it was approved to be returned” by the authority, Snyder said.
Israel has a legal antiquities market run by some 55 licensed dealers. They are allowed to sell items discovered before 1978, when a law took effect making all newfound artifacts state property.