One of the Israel Museum’s biggest patrons, American billionaire Michael Steinhardt, has relinquished ownership of 180 archaeological artifacts in his collection. The surrender is the result of a landmark lawsuit brought by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office against the wealthy collector. Charges claim that Steinhardt illegally possessed the antiquities, which had been looted from one or more archaeological dig sites.
The most valuable of those artifacts is also the one that provided the best evidence of the looting. The piece at the center of the controversy is the Heliodorus Stele. A stele is an engraved stone tablet. Archaeologists says this one was carved in 178 B.C.
In 2007, Steinhardt approached the Israeli art museum with the 2,200-year-old limestone slab. The museum put it on display. But shortly after that, an expert noticed something odd. Two chunks of text found a year earlier during a dig near Jerusalem fit the limestone slab like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. It became clear that Steinhardt’s tablet came from the same cave in Israel’s Beit Guvrin National Park where the other fragments were excavated.
Because collectors hunger for ancient treasures with noteworthy history, thieves and looters know there’s a lucrative market for pieces like the stele—if they can smuggle them off site without getting caught.
The two-millennia history of this piece seems almost too ironic to be true. The slab bears in Greek text a record of the correspondence between a man named Heliodorus and King Seleucus, ruler of the Seleucid dynasty from 187 to 175 B.C.
Seleucus explains in the letter that he is appointing a new position called “overseer of the sanctuaries” for the region, which included Israel. This overseer would be in charge of making sure that religious groups paid taxes to the king. The biblical Temple in Jerusalem would have fallen under the overseer’s jurisdiction, and Jewish tradition says that representatives from the Seleucid dynasty looted the Temple shortly after the writing of the stele. (This looting event and the effort to restore the Temple for God’s glory are the background for the annual Hannukah celebration on the Jewish calendar.)
So the ancient story of the appointment of a looter of Israel is told on a stone that was unearthed in Israel, looted from Israel, and then offered back to Israel to be displayed for the world to see. And due to that display, the owner exposed his own culpability for taking part in a grand, international looting network and must officially surrender the plunder back to its country of origin, Israel. Whew!
Altogether, the 180 artifacts Steinhardt relinquished in order to avoid prosecution are valued at about $70 million. The billionaire also had to agree to cease acquiring antiquities—for the remainder of his life.
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 of origin.
In addition to the Heliodorus Stele and two 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 and the birthplace of the biblical Ruth, who is in the line of Christ.
How it got to Jerusalem remains unclear.
James Snyder was the Israel Museum’s director from 1997 to 2016. He says all artifacts coming to the museum have their provenance checked by the Israeli Antiquities Authority before they’re exhibited. He stated that Steinhardt’s other looted artworks “came with documentation of legal ownership.” But those documents can be forged. That may have been the case in Steinhardt’s collection.
The Israel Museum said it had only recently learned about the settlement and is currently examining the matter. For now, the plundered artifacts in the museum still bear Steinhardt’s name.
(The Heliodorus Stele is displayed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on January 5, 2022. Last month, American billionaire Michael Steinhardt surrendered ownership of 180 artifacts, valued at roughly $70 million, as part of a deal with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office to avoid prosecution. AP/Maya Alleruzzo)