American officials met with representatives of the Palestinian Authority in Bethlehem on Thursday and handed back a 2,700-year-old looted item in what officials said was the first time the United States had repatriated a stolen relic to the Palestinian government.
The object, described as a “cosmetic spoon,” was a tool carved from ivory and dating to between 800 and 700 B.C. It was used to ladle incense onto fires and braziers at rites venerating the gods and the dead. A winged figure was etched into its front side.
The Palestinian minister of tourism and antiquities, Rula Maayah, who met with the American delegation, said, “This artifact is important as it acquires its real scientific and archaeological value in its authentic location.” She added that the item dates to the vast Assyrian civilization, and that it was likely stolen from what is now Hebron, in the West Bank.
The chief of the U.S. Office of Palestinian Affairs, George Noll, said at the ceremony that it was “a historic moment between the American and Palestinian people and a demonstration of our belief in the power of cultural exchanges in building mutual understanding, respect and partnership.”
According to the office of the Manhattan district attorney, the object was seized during a lengthy investigation into items collected by Michael H. Steinhardt, a prominent New York venture capitalist and a major ancient art collector. In 2021, after investigators seized 180 stolen antiquities valued at $70 million from Mr. Steinhardt, he agreed to a lifetime ban on acquiring antiquities.
The cosmetic spoon, officials said, first surfaced on the international art market on Jan. 21, 2003, when Mr. Steinhardt bought it from an Israeli antiquities dealer who has been accused of dealing in hundreds of illicit Israeli and Middle Eastern treasures, at least 28 of which were sold to Mr. Steinhardt.
Matthew Bogdanos, the chief of the district attorney’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, said his investigators were able to backtrack the origins of the cosmetic spoon by examining emails seized from Mr. Steinhardt that included conversations about the item and the fact that it had been illicitly obtained.
Last February, before the decision to return the spoon was announced, some Palestinians expressed dismay that Steinhardt artifacts they believed emanated from their territories would be handed over instead to the Israeli government. They have asked publicly for the return of more of the looted objects.