Jewish Press of Tampa

Birthright founder returning looted antiquities to Israel

Eight of the looted artifacts that billionaire philanthropist Michael Steinhardt must return to Israel as part of a deal with prosecutors in New York are still missing.

That’s according to a press release from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office announcing that $5 million in stolen antiquities previously belonging to Steinhardt are being repatriated to Israel, where Steinhardt is a prominent donor to cultural institutions.

Steinhardt, 81, is also one of the founders of Birthright, a program that offers young Jews in the diaspora free trips to Israel.

Three of the repatriated items were already on display at the Israel Museum, which years ago Steinhardt loaned to the museum. Israeli authorities on Tuesday, March 22 took possession of an additional 28 artifacts. The repatriated antiquities include two 7,000-year-old gold masks valued at $500,000 and three even older stone masks worth $650,000.

Several of the items being transferred to Israeli custody were originally looted from the West Bank. One missing object, a fish-shaped amulet, will be handed over to the Palestinian Authority if and when it’s found.

“These rare and beautiful artifacts, which are thousands of years old, have been kept from the public because of illegal looting and trafficking,” Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said in a statement.

A multi-year criminal investigation, which included several search warrants served at Steinhardt’s home and office, turned up evidence that Steinhardt possessed numerous looted antiquities. While authorities have seized many of them, there are some they never managed to find. These include an ancient sword, seven ivory figurines and the fish-shaped amulet.

The repatriation is a result of a deal struck between prosecutors and Steinhardt in December. To avoid prosecution, Steinhardt agreed to surrender 180 items authorities say he acquired illegally in Israel and 10 other countries. He’s also prohibited from ever trading in antiquities again.

Steinhardt did not admit to wrongdoing, and his lawyers have said that the dealers he bought the objects from deceived him about their legality.

Eitan Klein, deputy director of the theft prevention unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority, participated in a repatriation ceremony held by prosecutors in New York. “These antiquities are priceless for the State of Israel and its people,” Klein said in a statement. “They symbolize our rich and vast cultural heritage. Now, they are being returned to their rightful owners.”

While some in Israel criticized the relationship between Steinhardt and the Israeli cultural institutions he supports in the wake of the revelations, many more Israeli figures seemed to come to his defense, arguing that his contributions to the country outweigh whatever he is alleged to have done.

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