An ivory cosmetic spoon, dating back to approximately 800-700 BCE, was repatriated to the Palestinian Authority on January 5. (image courtesy the Manhattan DA Office)

The Manhattan District Attorney (DA)’s Office has returned a looted antiquity to the Palestinian Authority in what it says marks the United States’s first repatriation of a cultural object to the Palestinian people. The ivory cosmetic spoon, which dates to between 800 and 700 BCE, was seized from the ancient art collection of hedge fund billionaire Michael Steinhardt, who has come under investigation in recent years for possession of nearly 200 stolen artifacts from 11 countries.

The object was repatriated to the Palestinian Authority in a hand-over ceremony that took place in Bethlehem, West Bank, on Thursday, January 5.

“This artifact is important as it acquires its real scientific and archaeological value in its authentic location,” Palestinian Minister of Tourism Rula Maayah said during the ceremony.

Made from engraved ivory, the spoon was used to ladle incense onto a flame as offerings to the gods or the dead and dates to the Assyrian civilization, Maayah said. Israeli antiquities dealer Gil Chaya sold the spoon, originally from the small Palestinian village of  Khirbet al-Koum in the West Bank, to Steinhardt in January of 2003. A spokesperson for the Manhattan DA office told Hyperallergic that the spoon has no display history and that Chaya has not been charged for the sale.

Steinhardt relinquished the spoon and 179 other looted artifacts from his collection, a combined worth of around $70 million, during the investigation conducted by the Antiquities Trafficking Unit. Last February, 48 objects from Steinhardt’s seized collection, including “The Kouros” worth $14 million, were repatriated to Greece.

The repatriation of the spoon to Palestine took place despite the fact that as of last February, the New York prosecutors on the Steinhardt case agreed that 40 of the looted objects taken from Palestinian-controlled territories should be returned only to Israel.

Since 2021, Steinhardt has been issued a lifetime ban from collecting antiquities — a first of its kind, according to former DA Cyrus Vance Jr.

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Rhea Nayyar

Rhea Nayyar (she/her) is a New York-based teaching artist who is passionate about elevating minority perspectives within the academic and editorial spheres of the art world. Rhea received her BFA in Visual...

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