Looted

The U.S. Has Returned Its First Looted Antiquity to Palestine: A Disgraced Collector’s Iron-Age Spoon


A nearly 3,000-year-old ivory spoon is back in Palestine following a repatriation ceremony held in Bethlehem in the West Bank, marking the first time the U.S. has restituted a looted cultural artifact to the Middle Eastern nation, according to authorities.

Dating to approximately 800 to 700 B.C.E., the cosmetic spoon would have been used by the Assyrian civilization to pour incense. Experts believe looters stole it from an archaeological site in the Palestinian village of Al-Kum.

“This artifact is important as it acquires its real scientific and archaeological value in its authentic location,” Palestinian minister of tourism Rula Maayah said in a statement. “Based on information from the U.S. side, the investigations they conducted showed that the artifact was stolen from Khirbet al-Koum area in Hebron.”

The Iron Age spoon is one of 180 stolen antiquities, collectively valued at $70 million, that the Manhattan District Attorney’s office seized from billionaire collector Michael Steinhardt. He purchased the repatriated cosmetic spoon in January 2003 from Gil Chaya, an Israeli antiquities dealer. News of its return was first reported by the New York Times.

Michael Steinhardt at the Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala in New York City. Photo: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

Michael Steinhardt at the Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala in New York City. Photo: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

When the multi-year, multi-national investigations into Steinhardt concluded in December 2021, authorities hit him with an unprecedented lifetime ban preventing him from collecting cultural antiquities. The severity of the penalty reflected the fact that Steinhardt spent decades working with smugglers to knowingly acquire stolen art.

“His pursuit of ‘new’ additions to showcase and sell knew no geographic or moral boundaries, as reflected in the sprawling underworld of antiquities traffickers, crime bosses, money launderers, and tomb raiders he relied upon to expand his collection,” then-Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance said in a statement.

One of the world’s leading collectors of ancient art, Steinhardt had looted artifacts from 11 countries in his illicit holdings.

Michael Steinhardt purchased this pair of Gold Masks (ca. 5000 B.C.E.) from Rafi Brown, an illegal antiquities dealer, in March 2001. The U.S. repatriated the masks, now valued collectively at $500,000, to Israel in March. Photo courtesy of the Manhattan District Attorney's Office.

Michael Steinhardt purchased this pair of Gold Masks (ca. 5000 B.C.E.) from Rafi Brown, an illegal antiquities dealer, in March 2001. The U.S. repatriated the masks, now valued collectively at $500,000, to Israel in March. Photo courtesy of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

Over the last year, the Manhattan D.A. has been busy returning them.

In January alone, five artifacts worth $688,500 went back to Iraq; a $1.2 million marble head returned to Libya; and 14 antiquities were restored to Turkey. The following month, the U.S. returned 47 looted objects to Greece, plus a $200,000 helmet believed to belong to Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, to Bulgaria.

In March, the U.S. repatriated 39 objects worth more than $5 million to Israel, and nine artifacts went back to Egypt in September (along with six from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art). There were also two rounds of restitution to Italy, in July and again in September.

Michael Steinhardt purchased this Stag’s Head Rhyton (ca. 400 B.C.E.), a ceremonial vessel for libations, from Merrin Gallery for $2.6 million in November 1991. The U.S. repatriated the it, now valued at $3.5 million, to January in January 2022. Photo courtesy of the Manhattan District Attorney's Office.

Michael Steinhardt purchased this Stag’s Head Rhyton (ca. 400 B.C.E.), a ceremonial vessel for libations, from Merrin Gallery for $2.6 million in November 1991. The U.S. repatriated the it, now valued at $3.5 million, to January in January 2022. Photo courtesy of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

“It is impossible to put a value on the cultural and historical significance of looted antiquities and I thank our talented team of attorneys and investigators who are continuing their incredible work of returning these objects to where they rightfully belong,” D.A. Alvin L. Bragg Jr. said in a statement.

In 2022, the office’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit repatriated more than 1,100 antiquities, worth nearly $115 million altogether, to 15 countries.

 

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In a Landmark Restitution, the U.S. Returns 200 Looted Antiquities From Top Museums and Private Collections to Italy


Painted jars, marble busts, ceramic figurines, and even an ancient Roman statue reportedly sold to Kim Kardashian are part of a trove of 200 objects confiscated by U.S. authorities that have landed in Italy as part of the largest-ever repatriation agreement between the two countries. The objects were surrendered by museums and private collections across the United States.

The haul, which traveled on a commercial flight to Rome on Friday, is estimated to be worth around $10 million. “For years, prestigious museums and private collectors across the United States prominently displayed these Italian historical treasures even though their very presence in America constituted evidence of cultural heritage crimes,” the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., said in a statement.

Around 160 of them are linked to a single antiquities dealer, Edoardo Almagià, a 70-year-old from Rome accused of running a 30-year smuggling operation. Due to statutes of limitations, he is unlikely to face criminal charges. But for Italy, the objects’ return is a victory in its own right.

Pithos with Ulysses, Head of a Maiden, and Baltimore Painter Krater, three of some 200 stolen artifacts the Manhattan D.A. is repatriating to Italy. Photo courtesy of the Manhattan D.A.

Pithos with Ulysses, Head of a Maiden, and Baltimore Painter Krater, three of some 200 stolen artifacts the Manhattan D.A. is repatriating to Italy. Photo courtesy of the Manhattan D.A.

“What is most important is that these very important archaeological findings come back that are part of our culture identity,” Italian police official Roberto Riccardi, who serves in a cultural heritage unit of the Carabinieri, told the New York Times.

Seven of the repatriated artifacts were from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, including a 2,500-year-old wine cup. The San Antonio Museum of Art returned five Greco-Roman jars and plates and a selection of pottery fragments, while the Cleveland Museum of Art turned over three works.

Others came from galleries and private collections in New York City and Long Island. According to federal documents, Kim Kardashian was in the process of acquiring one of the works, an ancient Roman statue, when it was detained at the U.S. border in 2016. (A spokesman for the celebrity later told Midnight Publishing Group News that Kardashian had “never seen this sculpture,” leading to speculation that her ex Kanye West was behind the scuppered purchase.)

Nearly half of the illicit objects were from the Museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art at Fordham University in the Bronx. The museum opened in 2007 at the school’s Walsh Library, which is named after alumnus and donor William D. Walsh, who gifted his alma mater his collection of 260 antiquities. He later donated an additional 40 objects to the museum, which has since made modest acquisitions of its own.

Fordham has been forced to turn over a cache of about 100 Greco-Roman artifacts valued at close to $2 million, all but two of which come from Almagià. The museum’s holdings still include some 200 antiquities.

Authorities maintain that Walsh, who died in 2013, was unaware of Almagià’s illicit actions, but news coverage of the museum’s opening noted the potential for looted art.

“It’s a slightly imprudent act on the part of the university, because a lot of it is not provenanced,” Richard Hodges, the director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, told the New York Times at the time.

For his part, Almagià denied and attempted to minimize the allegations against him when reached by the Times. Investigations into his actions date back to at least 1996. In 2000, he was caught with stolen frescoes from the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum at New York’s Kennedy Airport.

He left the U.S. in 2006 and authorities raided his Upper East Side apartment, finding six looted artifacts. An Italian court acquitted Almagià in a 2012 smuggling case, but the ruling acknowledged he had helped illegally move Italian antiquities.

The Manhattan D.A.’s office believes that other museums around the country still hold artifacts once owned by Almagià, so additional restitutions may be forthcoming.

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From Christie’s Big Bet on Hong Kong to Hobby Lobby’s Looted Dream Tablet: The Best and Worst of the Art World This Week


Guarding America’s Pastime – Cleveland’s baseball team has rebranded itself as the Guardians, paying tribute to beloved sculptures that line the bridge leading to the stadium.

Space Jam Kicks Sell for Stratospheric Sum  A pair of Nikes made for Michael Jordan sold for over $176,000 at Sotheby’s.

Pompidou Names New Director  France’s Centre Pompidou named 39-year-old Xavier Rey to lead the museum as it closes for a three-year renovation.

Marian Goodman Cements Succession Plan  The veteran art dealer named five new partners, while she will take on the role of CEO.

Australia Returns Looted Indian Artifacts  The National Gallery of Australia returned 13 works bought from disgraced art dealer Subhash Kapoor, who is now in prison.

Christie’s Bets Big in Hong Kong  The auction house announced plans to quadruple its sales room and increase auctions three fold in the city.

Viva Venice!  We’re still months and possible mask mandates away from the so-called “art world Olympics,” but here’s an updated list of all confirmed artists headed to the Venice Biennale in 2022.

LA Art Dealer Slapped With Embezzlement Charges  Founder of Ace gallery Douglas Chrismas was arrested on federal charges alleging he stole more than $260,000 from his gallery.

Holocaust Memorial Approved, Despite Criticism  Starchitect David Adjaye’s plans for the London-based memorial got the green light, despite protests that it overstates Britain’s role in saving Jewish people.

Art Dealer Sentenced for Fraud  Former socialite art dealer Angela Gulbenkian was sentenced to three years in prison for her bad business practices.

Hirst Takes a Hatchet to Studio Jobs  The For the Love of God artist reportedly laid off 63 employees, despite taking advantage of a $21 million pandemic bailout.

Authorities to Return Gilgamesh Tablet  The United States is restituting some 17,000 objects including the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet once owned by collector Steve Green to Iraq.

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The Manhattan District Attorney Has Returned 27 Looted Antiquities Worth a Combined $3.8 Million to Cambodia


The United States returned nearly 30 antiquities worth a combined $3.8 million to Cambodia this week. The objects, which include several Angkorian Buddhist statues and Hindu statues, were seized from two New York art dealers who are alleged to have separately used their galleries to offload smuggled and stolen antiquities.  

“The repatriation of these 27 stunning relics to the people of Cambodia restores an important link between the nation’s classical Angkor era and its modern customs and beliefs that, for far too long, was disrupted by the greed of stolen antiquities traffickers,” New York District Attorney Cy Vance said in a statement. 

The works were handed over in an official repatriation ceremony on Friday attended by Vance, the Cambodian Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phoeurng Sackona, and other officials including from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance. Image courtesy of the Office of the District Attorney of New York

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance. Image courtesy of the Office of the District Attorney of New York

The items returned include 24 seized in connection with the investigation of disgraced dealer Subhash Kapoor and three tied to the investigation of gallerist Nancy Wiener.

The long-running investigation into Kapoor and his co-conspirators accuses them of illegal looting, exportation, and sale of ancient art from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal, Indonesia, Myanmar, and other nations.

Kapoor and the other defendants had a pattern of smuggling looted antiquities through his Madison Avenue gallery, Art of the Past, according to authorities. Over the course of nine years, they tracked and recovered more than 2,500 objects that had passed through the dealership with an estimated value of more than $143 million, according to a statement. 

The D.A. first issued an arrest warrant for Kapoor in 2012. In July 2020, the office filed extradition paperwork for the dealer, who is currently in prison in India pending the completion of his ongoing trial on smuggling grounds in Tamil Nadu. “We continue to urge Indian authorities to expedite the extradition,” a spokesperson for the D.A.’s office said.

Wiener, meanwhile, was charged in December 2016 with criminal possession of stolen property and conspiracy. According to the D.A., between at least 1999 and 2016, she allegedly used her eponymous New York gallery to smuggle, sell, and launder millions of dollars worth of antiquities from many of the same countries outlined in the charges against Kapoor.

Both dealers face up to 25 years in prison.

“The win-win policy of the Royal Government that has brought peace to Cambodia is a strong foundation for the preservation of the nation’s culture,” said the Cambodian arts minister Phoeurng Sackona in a statement. He added that even amid the challenges of the pandemic, Cambodia “remains committed to finding and bringing back our ancestors’ souls that departed their motherland over a number of years, including during a period of war.”

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It May Have Been Kanye West—Not Kim Kardashian—Who Bought an Ancient Roman Sculpture Allegedly Looted From Italy


Last month, the U.S. government demanded that Kim Kardashian forfeit an ancient Roman sculpture that she had been in the process of acquiring, according to papers in a civil court action. But now, it seems that perhaps the Keeping Up With the Kardashians star wasn’t behind the purchase at all.

In fact, it may have been Kardashian’s ex, Kanye West, who was behind the sale, TMZ has reported.

Citing a “source connected to the situation,” the news outlet explained that West acquired the sculpture as part of a larger purchase that included additional artworks. Kardashian, meanwhile, aparently didn’t know about the sculpture until the filing of the complaint this week.

A representative for Kardashian told Midnight Publishing Group News that the influencer had “never seen this sculpture” before. The spokesperson declined to comment further.

Representatives for West did not immediately return a request for comment.

The sculpture in question, a large draped figure titled Fragment of Myron’s Samian Athena, is believed to be a copy of an original Greek piece, and was finished around the 1st or 2nd century, during the early to mid-Roman Empire. It was seized by authorities in Los Angeles in 2016 after arriving in a 5.5-ton shipment that contained $745,000 worth of antiques, Modern furniture, and decorative objects. Kardashian was listed as the consignee and importer.

A photograph of the antique Roman statue taken by an HSI SA on or about May 11, 2016. Photo courtesy PACER.

A photograph of the antique Roman statue taken by an HSI SA on or about May 11, 2016. Photo courtesy PACER.

According to court documents, Kardashian bought the sculpture that same year from Belgian dealer Axel Vervoordt, who had previously decorated her Calabasas mansion. (An invoice mentioned in the filing shows that Vervoordt had purchased the work from Galerie Chenel in Paris in 2012.) But by that point, the piece was already on the radar of Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage, which suspected it of being an object of national import.

In 2018, an archaeologist from the culture ministry found that no export license had ever been granted for the sculpture—a requirement for the international transport of pieces of national heritage in Italy since 1909—and thus suggested that it had been “looted, smuggled, and illegally exported.”

The sculpture is named as the defendant in the complaint, which is common practice for civil forfeiture cases like this. It also means that the stakes of the case don’t extend beyond the ownership of the piece; criminal charges or other forms of punitive action are not on the table for Kardashian or anyone else named in the filing. 

The complaint calls for the sculpture to be forfeited to the U.S. government, which would in turn likely repatriate the piece to Italy. However, either Kardashian or Vervoordt now have the option to make a claim for the piece and, if they do so, the case will be litigated in court.

If that happens, there’s a good chance the U.S. government will lose, says Duncan Levin, an expert on asset forfeiture who is not connected to the Kardashian case.

“The government seems to be basing this entire case on some inconsistent statements made by the seller,” said Levin, who previously served as chief of asset forfeiture for the Manhattan district attorney’s office. “But there’s no evidence about when this piece left its original country. As a result of that, the government is going to have an extremely difficult time proving their case.”

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