For the First Time, U.S. Repatriates an Artifact to the Palestinian Authority

The item, an ivory cosmetic spoon, dates back to between 800 and 700 B.C.E.

Palestinian cosmetic spoon
The icory cosmetic spoon was used to pour incense onto fires as an offering to the gods or the dead. Manhattan District Attorney’s Office

For the first time, the United States has returned a looted cultural artifact to the Palestinian Authority. The object, an ivory cosmetic spoon that dates back to the Iron Age, was handed over during a repatriation ceremony on January 5. 

Both U.S. and Palestinian officials attended the event, which was held at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in Bethlehem, according to a statement from the U.S. Office of Palestinian Affairs.

“It is the first ever event of such repatriation from the United States to the Palestinian Authority in history,” the statement reads, “during which U.S. and Palestinian officials shared their mutual respect and appreciation for cultural heritage and history, acknowledging the importance of cultural exchange in strengthening the U.S.-Palestinian relationship.”

The cosmetic spoon dates back to between 800 and 700 B.C.E., according to a statement from the Manhattan district attorney’s office. It was used to pour incense onto fires as an offering to the gods or the dead.

The item was seized as part of the district attorney’s office’s investigation into Michael Steinhardt, a billionaire antiquities collector who in December 2021 surrendered 180 stolen items and agreed to a lifetime ban on acquiring artifacts.

“For decades, Michael Steinhardt displayed a rapacious appetite for plundered artifacts without concern for the legality of his actions, the legitimacy of the pieces he bought and sold, or the grievous cultural damage he wrought across the globe,” said Cyrus Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney at the time, per the New York Times’ Tom Mashberg.

Officials say the ivory spoon was looted from the Khirbet al-Koum area in Hebron. Steinhardt purchased it in 2003, soon after it appeared on the international art market. Investigators learned of its origins from emails that had been seized from Steinhardt, reports the Times.

Rula Maayah, the Palestinian minister of tourism, says in a statement that the artifact’s return is important, and that the item “acquires its real scientific and archaeological value in its authentic location.”

The Manhattan district attorney’s office has made the repatriation of cultural artifacts a priority in recent years. A few months ago, the office seized 27 stolen antiquities from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It also seized a nearly ten-foot-tall coffin from the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which was repatriated to Egypt last week.

“We are proud to join our law enforcement and government partners in this historic moment,” says Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, in a statement. “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.”

Editor’s note, January 10, 2023: This story has been updated to clarify that Steinhardt agreed to stop collecting artifacts.