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AP reporter locates plundered antiquities in Israeli museum

The Heliodorus Stele, loaned by American billionaire Michael Steinhardt, is displayed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022. Last month, Steinhardt surrendered the artifact, along with 179 others valued at roughly $70 million, as part of a landmark deal with the Manhattan District Attorney's office to avoid prosecution. Eight Neolithic masks loaned by Steinhardt to the Israel Museum for a major exhibition in 2014 were also seized as part of the billionaire's deal with New York authorities. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

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Reporter Ilan Ben Zion revealed that weeks after an American billionaire agreed to forfeit $70 million in looted antiquities to U.S. authorities, three of the items were still on display in Israel’s national museum.

The AP was the only outlet to follow up on the Manhattan district attorney’s recent deal with Michael Steinhardt, a New York-based art collector and philanthropist who has deep ties to Israel. Ben Zion found that the Israel Museum was home to several of the items seized, including a 2,200-year-old Greek text carved into limestone, with Steinhardt listed as the donor who provided them. The Jerusalem-based reporter also located a 2,800-year-old inscription on black volcanic stone, a Steinhardt-owned artifact of uncertain provenance that wasn’t included in the deal.

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A Neolithic mask loaned by American billionaire Michael Steinhardt remains on displayed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Jan. 5, 2022, weeks after Steinhardt surrendered the mask and 179 other looted artifacts in a deal with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office to avoid prosecution. – AP Photo / Maya Alleruzzo

Ben Zion, who has reported extensively on antiquities in Israel, tapped contacts inside the museum, the antiquities trade and the academic community to pin down the story. Neither Steinhardt nor the museum appear to have wanted details of the agreement, or the issue of the museum’s problematic artifacts, to be made public. They gave only brief prepared statements after repeated prodding.

AP’s story comes as museums are facing greater scrutiny over the chain of ownership of their art, particularly work 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.

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