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JERUSALEM: In 2007, one of Israel Museum’s biggest patrons, the American billionaire Michael Steinhardt, approached the flagship of the Israeli art institution with an artifact he had recently purchased: a 2,200-year-old Greek text carved into the limestone.
But shortly after it was shown, an expert noticed something strange – two pieces of text found a year earlier during an excavation 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 handed over the piece, known as the Heliodorus Stele, and 179 other artifacts worth about $ 70 million as part of a landmark deal with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office to avoid prosecution. Eight Neolithic masks lent by Steinhardt to the Israel Museum for a major exhibition in 2014 were also seized under the agreement, including two still on display at the museum.
Museums around the world face greater control over the origin – or chain of ownership – of their art, in particular
those looted from conflict zones or illegally looted from archeological sites. There is a growing demand for such goods to be returned to their countries
of origin.

Heliodorus Stele, lent by US billionaire Michael Steinhardt, will be on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on Wednesday, January 5, 2022. (AP)

Donna Yates, a criminologist specializing in artifact smuggling at Maastricht University, said several recent scandals involving looted artifacts – such as the Denver Art Museum’s return of Cambodian antiques – “cause museums to reconsider the ownership history of some of the objects they have. .”
“They can not really afford the public embarrassment by constantly being associated with that kind of thing, because museums are not wealthy, and many of
they have a 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 origin: a 2,800-year-old inscription on black volcanic rock. The museum’s exhibit traces its origins to Moab, an ancient kingdom in modern Jordan.
How it came to Jerusalem is still unclear.
Steinhardt gave the royal Moabite inscription to the museum on an extended loan in 2002, shortly after purchasing it from an authorized Israeli dealer in Jerusalem, said Amir Ganor, who heads the Israel Antiquities Authority’s anti-theft unit.
This dealer, who confirmed the deal but spoke on condition of anonymity due to legal issues surrounding the item, told The Associated Press that he received the inscription from a Palestinian colleague in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank who did not. indicate its origin.
“I do not know how it came to the dealer in Jerusalem,” Ganor said. He said it could have come from the West Bank, neighboring Jordan or through Dubai, a long-standing ancient hub.
The Israel Museum rejected requests for interviews and refused to show documentation of the artifact.
But in a statement, it denied having done anything wrong, saying it “consistently follows the rules in force at the time the works are lent out.” It said all exhibits are “in full cooperation” with the Antiquities Authority.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office said the Moabite inscription was not part of the Steinhardt investigation and declined to discuss the topic.
James Snyder, who was director of the Israel Museum from 1997 to 2016, said it all
artifacts that come to the museum get their ancestry checked
by the IAA before being exhibited, and that Steinhardt’s other looted works of art “came with evidence of legal ownership.”
“We got documentation for 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 antiques market run by about 55 licensed dealers. They are allowed to sell items discovered before 1978, when a law came into force that turned all newly found artifacts into state property.


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