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Artifacts handed over by the U.S. to Jordan are displayed during a ceremony in Amman
Artifacts handed over by the U.S. to Jordan are displayed during a ceremony held by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan March 1, 2022. REUTERS/Alaa Al Sukhni

U.S. returns billionaire's plundered artifacts to Jordan

JERUSALEM (AP) — American authorities have returned nine looted artifacts to Jordan that were seized from a U.S. billionaire collector as part of a landmark deal announced in December.

The artifacts were among 180 items seized by the Manhattan District Attorney's office as part of an agreement with collector Michael Steinhardt to surrender trafficked artifacts and avoid prosecution. The deal capped a four-year investigation into Steinhardt's possession of looted antiquities.

The Jordanian Antiquities Ministry and the U.S. Embassy in Jordan held a ceremony in Jordan's capital, Amman, on Tuesday showcasing the objects that were "illegally smuggled from Jordan and obtained by an antiquities collector in the United States," the embassy said in a statement.

"This is a testament to the United States' commitment to help protect Jordan's cultural heritage. With today's repatriation of Jordanian antiquities, we are keeping this promise," Ambassador Henry T. Wooster said.

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The American and Jordanian authorities' press statements did not mention Steinhardt by name, but seven of the artifacts that appeared in photos published by the ministry matched the description of Jordanian items in court documents.

Two ancient Jewish tombstones that were plundered from Jordan and bought by Steinhardt from an Israeli antiquities dealer did not appear in photos from the press conference. The director of the Jordanian Antiquities Ministry did not respond to request for comment.

Since the Manhattan District Attorney's office announced the agreement in December, U.S. authorities have returned Steinhardt's plundered artifacts to Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Libya, Iraq, and now Jordan. Steinhardt was not accused of plundering any items himself and has said he did not commit any crime. But the DA's office said he "knew, or should have ascertained by reasonable inquiry" that the antiquities were stolen.

More than two dozen artifacts that had been plundered from Israel and the occupied West Bank are expected to be returned to Israeli authorities later this month, the Israeli Antiquities Authority said.

Of the 40 artifacts being repatriated to Israel as part of the deal, at least 22 are believed to have been plundered from West Bank sites, according to court documents. Steinhardt "has been unable to locate" nine of those pieces, and another three are on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The museum recently removed Steinhardt's name from the display label for two Neolithic masks he had loaned.

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The DA's office said the artifacts from the occupied West Bank will be returned to the Israeli government "pursuant to the Oslo Accords," the 1995 interim agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which says the return of West Bank artifacts to the Palestinians should be resolved in a still-elusive final peace deal.

Jihad Yassin, a Palestinian Tourism and Antiquities Ministry official, said that the materials that came from the West Bank should be returned to the Palestinians, and that his department was preparing to submit a report to UNESCO about the issue.

Steinhardt, 81, is a hedge fund founder and philanthropist who chairs the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. He is also co-founder of Birthright Israel, an organization that sends young Jews on free trips to Israel and a prominent patron of the Israel Museum and other institutions in the country.

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