The announcement that Michael Steinhardt has 'surrendered' 180 objects valued at $70 million is shocking. Tom Mashberg ("Michael Steinhardt, Billionaire, Surrenders $70 Million in Stolen Relics", New York Times December 7, 2021) has also reminded us:
Prosecutors said Mr. Steinhardt had owned and traded more than 1,000 antiquities since 1987.
Each of these objects has been removed from its archaeological context. Associations have been lost. Stratigraphy destroyed. Knowledge has been swept away and will never be recovered.
There is cheer that these objects are being returned to their country of origin. Yet repatriation does not restore the archaeological knowledge. This debate has shifted back to the old question, 'Who Owns Antiquity?'
And Steinhardt stands in a line of private collectors, many based in New York, who have chosen to acquire recently surfaced antiquities and have turned a blind eye to the issue of looting. How did he think such objects—1,000 of them—had appeared on the market?
How many of these collectors have funded archaeological excavations? (Just think of how $70 million could have been spent.) And does support for field archaeology cancel out the destruction of those lost contexts? And what about associating the names of these benefactors with some of the great museums of the world?
We should be concerned at the scale of the problem. But we should be more concerned about the intellectual consequences of so much destruction of the archaeological record.