Category Archive 'Antiquities Returns'

08 Dec 2021

Cy Vance Sends Antiquities Back

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Stag’s Head Rhyton sent to Erdoğan’s regime in Turkey.

The NYT praises NYC District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s latest triumph.

Michael H. Steinhardt, the billionaire hedge fund pioneer and one of New York’s most prolific antiquities collectors, has surrendered 180 stolen objects valued at $70 million and been barred for life from acquiring any other relics, the Manhattan district attorney’s office said in a statement Monday.

The prosecutor’s office struck an agreement with Mr. Steinhardt after a four-year multinational investigation that determined that the seized pieces had been looted and smuggled from 11 countries, trafficked by 12 illicit networks and appeared on the international art market without lawful paperwork, the office said. …

Mr. Steinhardt, a Brooklyn native who turns 81 on Tuesday, is a major contributor to New York University and to numerous Jewish philanthropies. There is a Steinhardt conservatory at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and a Steinhardt Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. …

As part of its inquiry, Mr. Vance’s office said, prosecutors executed 17 search warrants and worked with officials in 11 countries — Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Turkey. …

[Returned items] include:

    A ceremonial libations vessel, or rhyton, that depicts a stag’s head, purchased from the Merrin Gallery of Manhattan for $2.6 million in November 1991. Officials said the item, which dates to 400 B.C., first appeared on the international art market without provenance after rampant looting in Milas, Turkey. In March 1993, prosecutors said, Mr. Steinhardt lent it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was when law enforcement officials seized it. It has since been repatriated.
    A larnax, or small chest for human remains, from Crete, that dates between 1400-1200 B.C. Officials said the item, valued at $1 million, was purchased from a known antiquities trafficker and traced to Mr. Steinhardt through a financial institution based in Malta.
    The “Ercolano Fresco,” purchased from Robert Hecht, who had faced accusations of trafficking in antiquities, “with no prior provenance” for $650,000 in November 1995. Dating to 50 B.C. and valued at $1 million, it depicts an infant Hercules strangling a snake sent by Hera to slay him. The fresco was looted in 1995 from a Roman villa in the ruins of Herculaneum, near Naples, officials said.
    A gold bowl looted from Nimrud, Iraq, and purchased without provenance papers, officials said, for $150,000 in July 2020, at a time when objects from Nimrud were being trafficked by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. …
    Three stone death masks that appeared to be encrusted with soil in photographs recovered by the Israeli authorities. They date to 6000 B.C. and were purchased by Mr. Steinhardt for $400,000 in October 2007.

Prosecutors said Mr. Steinhardt had owned and traded more than 1,000 antiquities since 1987, and his art collection was valued at about $200 million.



It’s obviously vital and morally obligatory to take antiquities out of the Metropolitan Museum in New York (where they were on loan) and return them to places like Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.

After all, who could possibly argue that the contemporary corrupt and barbarous regimes ruling over the descendants of peoples who invaded and replaced the much earlier peoples who created certain precious objects of art are not 100% entitled to ownership of all objects lost centuries and millennia ago and found and recovered by somebody else?

And why should the Manhattan D.A.’s Office waste its time prosecuting Smash-and-Grab robberies of Manhattan luxury stores, for instance, when it can devote the same time to sending back tens of millions of dollars worth of art to banana republic governments in the Mediterranean and the Middle East?

17 Feb 2011

Returning Antiquities

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The Bookworm has some thoughts on the morality and practical consequences of returning antiquities from Western museums to their lands of origin.

The narrative has long been in place: For centuries, the predatory West raped the ancient world — Egypt, Greece, the Fertile Crescent, Persia — of her culture. Greedy treasure hunters and archeologists stole her mummies, her statuary, her carvings, her jewels and her wall paintings. Their museums gained world renown because of these ill-gotten gains, while the countries of origin moldered, deprived not only of their natural riches, but also of their historic legacy. With the end of colonialism after World War II, the situation started righting itself, as now-properly abashed Western countries began returning these stolen treasures to their true homes.

The actual story is a bit different. The cultures that had created those treasures had long vanished by the time the Western collectors showed up and started sniffing around. Where once had been glory, now was abysmal poverty. More than that, there was a profound disinterest in the past. The citizens of Egypt, Greece, the Ottoman Empire, etc., cared nothing for the treasures beneath their feet. Those that they couldn’t see, they forgot; those that they could see, they recycled. They broke down ancient structures and used their stones to build their homes; they melted down ancient jewelry, and refashioned the gold in modern design. The Egyptian mummies to which thieves had easy access had long since vanished — some within days of being interred — especially since their wrappings made good paper and, for centuries, their dust was thought to have curative powers.

What made these remnants of the past valuable was the interest the West had in the ancient world’s past. To the Middle East, they were raw material; to the Westerners, things of beauty and wonder. And so the West took them away, to museums and private collections. In terms of what was happening in the Middle East 200 years ago or 100 years ago, Western activity was akin to digging in the garbage to collect someone else’s discards. The only thing that bespoke value in the regions themselves was gold, so the archeologists figured out that, if they gave to the fellahin who unearthed the ancient gold a sum of money equal to that object’s weight, the latter cheerfully parted with their cultural past.

The relics, once in the West, were treated with a reverence denied them in the lands from which they emerged. They were cleaned, restored, maintained, studied and much visited. And of course, as their status rose, the people who had so cavalierly parted with them realized that they had lost something of value. When they had achieved some measure of moral power, they demanded them back. Often, the West complied with those demands. …

[M]any ended up back at home, in lands governed by dictatorships. These, no matter how long they last, invariably seem to end in a welter of violence, flames, vandalism and theft. Is it a surprise, then, that when a dictatorship ends, it’s often the case that the treasures, once ignored and abused, then revered in foreign lands, and then returned to their natal soil, should be amongst the first casualties?

Statue of 18th Dynasty Pharoah Akhenaton, circa 1336 BC, recently looted from Egyptian museum and found two weeks later discarded beside a garbage bin.

30 Jan 2011

Antiquities Vandalized in Egypt

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Last year, the New York Metropolitan Museum returned 19 artifacts from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Back in 2003, the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Atlanta gave Egypt back the mummy of Ramses I.

Riding a wave of liberal guilt and political correctness, Egyptian officials have demanded that Western museums generally empty their Egyptian exhibitions and return antiquities recovered by Western scholarship. Targets for such demands have included the Rosetta Stone currently in the British Museum, the Berlin Museum’s bust of Queen Nefertiti, and a number of reliefs depicting a journey in the Afterlife from the Louvre. Only the Louvre has so far capitulated to Egyptian demands.

It ought to have been obvious that irreplaceable art objects and antiquities are more accessible to larger audiences and to scholars, and considerably safer, in museums located in the West.

Hyperallergic has a collection of photographs of the damage to the Egyptian Museum from Aljazeera.


This Red Alert from the security consultancy Stratfor suggests that security forces might have been behind the (clearly limited) vandalism to the museum, attempting to create a pretext, and support, for a crackdown on demonstrators.

The Egyptian police are no longer patrolling the Rafah border crossing into Gaza. Hamas armed men are entering into Egypt and are closely collaborating with the [Muslim Brotherhood]. The MB has fully engaged itself in the demonstrations, and they are unsatisfied with the dismissal of the Cabinet. They are insisting on a new Cabinet that does not include members of the ruling National Democratic Party.

Security forces in plainclothes are engaged in destroying public property in order to give the impression that many protesters represent a public menace. The MB is meanwhile forming people’s committees to protect public property and also to coordinate demonstrators’ activities, including supplying them with food, beverages and first aid.

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