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Benjamin Adam Saidel

The Michael Steinhardt Spoon and Politics of Repatriation

The repatriation of the Michael Steinhart Spoon, or Steinhardt spoon, to the Palestinian Authority was a problematic and politicized endeavor that has little to do with scientific archaeology. Michael Steinhardt, a billionaire hedge fund manager, and philanthropist surrendered his antiquities collection to the New York County District Attorney on December 3, 2021. Among the illicit items in his antiquities collection was a broken ivory “spoon” that purportedly came from El-Kom in the West Bank. In January 2023 this looted artifact was repatriated to the Palestinian Authority since it administers El-Kom.

The problem here is that the purported origin of the Steinhardt spoon does not withstand archaeological and historical scrutiny. This is not merely an academic matter, but one that has significant political implications. In particular, the Biden administration used the repatriation of the Steinhardt spoon as an opportunity to tacitly recognize the Palestinian Authority as an independent and sovereign nation. Information on the spoon described below, and the antiquity dealers who sold it to Steinhart, is drawn from the following public document, In the Matter of A Grand Jury Investigation into A Private New York Antiquities Collector.

The Steinhardt spoon is a small broken ivory object that may be the remains of an incense shovel or cosmetic palette. In my opinion the latter is more likely. Incised on the handle is a crudely executed Egyptianized winged sphinx that is enclosed by two lines. The bowl is framed by two incised concentric rings that are separated from each other by six small, incised circles. The Steinhardt spoon is dated to 800-700 BCE, which is a slice of time that falls within the Iron Age II period (ca. 950-550 BC). The Iron Age II period broadly corresponds with the biblical kingdom of Judah.

Michael Steinhardt bought this illicit artifact on January 21, 2003, from Biblical Antiquities Ltd. Gil Chaya opened this Jerusalem based antiquities shop in 1999, and he ran it with Lisa Chaya, who was his wife at that time.

The attribution of the Steinhardt spoon to El-Kom is based on the authority and knowledge of the Chayas. When they initially offered this item for sale on the international antiquities market it did not have a provenance. In other words, no information was forthcoming about its origin or where it came from. Nevertheless, Steinhardt bought this ivory artifact from the Chayas for $6000. After this transaction, the Chayas informed Steinhardt that this item came from El-Kom, which is to the west of Hebron. In an email to the curator of Steinhardt’s antiquities collection the Chayas described El-Kom as an area that had “the richest Iron age Jewish tombs (many royal).”

The Chayas’ description of El-Kom is archaeologically and historically false. Salvage excavations conducted at El-Kom in 1967 and 1971 exposed two Judean tombs, however, these projects unearthed absolutely no evidence of a royal cemetery. The absence of a royal Jewish necropolis at El-Kom should not be surprising. In the Iron Age II period El-Kom was part of the kingdom of Judah, whose capital and royal necropolis were in Jerusalem. Today, the monumental tombs of Judah’s elite and nobility are underneath the Arab neighborhood of Silwan in modern Jerusalem. This royal burial ground was documented by David Ussishkin, an Israeli archaeologist, and his preliminary and final publications appeared in 1970 and 1993, respectively. In 1994 the Biblical Archaeological Review, a general interest magazine, published a popular article on Ussishkin’s research in Silwan. In addition to this information, the results of the salvage excavations conducted at El-Kom were published in 1969-1970, 1971, and 1993.

Taken as a whole, all of the archaeological publications mentioned above appeared in print by the mid-1990s. Yet, as of 2003, the Chayas did not realize that there was no archaeological evidence of a royal Jewish necropolis at El-Kom. Why? On the one hand, their blunder is understandable if one remembers that the Chayas were antiquities dealers and not professionally trained archaeologists. On the other hand, their error raises the possibility that the spoon’s origin may be contrived to comport with the interests and socio-economic status of their customer, Michael Steinhardt.

Aside from these questions, there are issues with the cultural affiliation of this artifact. When the Chayas owned this spoon, it do not have a provenance. Once Michael Steinhardt acquired this spoon it became a Jewish artifact that was purportedly associated with El-Kom’s Judean, read Jewish tombs. Steinhardt surrendered this Jewish artifact to the New York County District Attorney. When this illicit artifact was repatriated to the Palestinian Authority it became an exemplar of Palestinian patrimony. The New York District Attorney and the US Office of Palestinian Affairs both issued press releases that celebrated the repatriation of this artifact, however, these communiques did not mention that this spoon was purportedly associated with Jewish tombs.

On a diplomatic level, the repatriation of the Michael Steinhardt Spoon provided the Biden Administration with an opportunity to tacitly recognize the Palestinian Authority as an independent and sovereign nation. Generally speaking, archaeological artifacts are often repatriated to either indigenous peoples or nations. The press releases issued by of the Office of the New York District Attorney and the US Office of Palestinian Affairs acknowledged the political significance of this event. For example, the subheading on the press release posted by the Office of the Manhattan District Attorney read: “Repatriation Marks First Time the United States has Returned a Cultural Object to the Palestinian People”. In this communique Special agent Ivan J. Arvelo stated that “We are honored to join our partners today in this historic repatriation of this artifact to the Palestinian Authority.” The political significance of the repatriation of the Steinhardt Spoon is also echoed in the comments made by George Noll, who is the chief of the United States Office of Palestinian Affairs:

“The US Office of Palestinian Affairs is proud to facilitate the return of this rare antiquity, an example of Palestinian cultural patrimony. This is 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.”

The repatriation of this artifact is based on information that the Chayas provided to Steinhardt. Those involved with the repatriation of this artifact accepted the Chayas’ premise that it came from El-Kom. Yet, the Chayas statement that this artifact was associated with Jewish graves was seemingly ignored as it is not mentioned in the press releases issued by the Office of the Manhattan District Attorney and United States Office of Palestinian Affairs.

Is the Steinhardt spoon actually from El-Kom? From my perspective as a professional archaeologist, there is no compelling archaeological evidence that this looted artifact came from El-Kom. Some might argue that the origin provided by the Chayas was contrived, yet this artifact still came from El-Kom. Accepting this premise without archaeological evidence is essentially a testament of faith. Unfortunately, we will never know with certainty where the spoon actually came from, and how it was used, because it was illegally excavated. Conceivably, the Steinhardt spoon could have been chunked out of any archaeological site in Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority.

As a professional archaeologist, I believe that the repatriation of the Steinhardt spoon has little to do with archaeology as a scientific discipline. Rather, this process is rooted in the realms of law enforcement and diplomacy. Finally, if the Biden administration is genuinely interested in the archaeological and cultural heritage of the Palestinian Authority, then perhaps they could send them something more substantive than a broken spoon. (A referenced version of this blog is posted on my academia page for those that are interested.)

About the Author
Benjamin Adam Saidel is a Full Professor in the Department of Anthropology at East Carolina University. He earned his A.M. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from Harvard University. He also has a Masters in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. His undergraduate degree is from Brandeis University. Saidel has directed several archaeological projects in Israel, and he has authored more than 50 archaeological publications.
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