The repatriation of artifacts to their cultural and ancestral homeland is an integral part of colonial reparations and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions.

New York billionaire Michael Steinhardt was forced to give up 180 stolen antiquities following multiple multi-year investigations into his collection of ancient art and artifacts. "On behalf of Homeland Security Investigations, this is a major area that we enjoy investigating and that we need to investigate, and it truly is a privilege to be a part of this grand repatriation ceremony today," said Acting Special Agent in Charge Ricky Patel of Homeland Security Investigations.

Stolen antiquities on display at the repatriation ceremony in Manhattan. Image courtesy of Alexandra Svokos, ABC News

The objects removed from Steinhardt’s possession were smuggled from eleven countries — Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Turkey — with the help of twelve criminal smuggling networks and known antiquities traffickers. Fifty-five pieces were collected by an investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, valued at over $20 million.

Several ancient Greek pieces were returned in an official repatriation ceremony to the Greek Minister of Culture, Lina Mendoni. These include The Kourous, a Greek sculpture dating back to 560 BCE, a gold brooch from 600 BCE, a larnax (small chest for human remains) dating back to 1400 BCE, and a spouted bowl dating back to 2200 BCE. They were looted from central Greece, Crete, the Cyclades islands, Samos and Rhodes.

Mendoni has made the repatriation of Greek antiquities a priority during her term. The compliance of the Manhattan DA’s investigation with her goals has increased pressure on the British government to return the Parthenon Marbles to Athens. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently reneged on his latest statement regarding the long-awaited return of the Marbles, stating that it fell to the British Museum’s jurisdiction rather than the government’s. This assertion contradicts his earlier declaration that the government had “legally acquired” the marbles at the beginning of the 19th century.

However, what Johnson refers to as “legal” is highly contested, as the marbles were forcibly removed from the frieze covering the Parthenon in 1801 under the order of the British ambassador to Constantinople. The ambassador claimed he had received a permit from the then-Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, whose territory included Greece, but the actual allowances of the permit are contested. Many argue it only extended to conducting research on the grounds. A Parliamentary committee conducted an investigation into his actions in 1816, and found them to be “entirely legal” — a declaration that appears on the British Museum’s website.

Other items in Steinhardt’s collection have also been repatriated to their homelands, including a 350 BCE marble bust returned to Libya. Veiled Head of a Female is valued at $1.2 million and was looted from a tomb in Cyrene (modern-day Shahhat) during a period of civil unrest.

Veiled Head of a Female. Image courtesy of Manhattan District Attorney’s Office

“The issue of repatriation of illegally trafficked cultural property is a high priority and we have developed international initiatives and collaborations,” Mendoni told The National Herald.

“Every repatriation of illegally exported cultural goods to Greece means another precious piece of our History and Culture has been returned.”

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