A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
In November 1995, U.S. Customs agents seized an ancient gold phiale, a vessel used for pouring libations, from the Fifth Avenue residence of retired financier Michael Steinhardt. Today, Raymond W. Kelly, U.S. Customs Commissioner, officially returned the antiquity to Girogio Radicati, Italy's Consul General. Kelly noted the return as an example of international cooperation, while Radicati stated that Italy considered the phiale as part of world heritage and would act as its custodian for future generations. After being briefly displayed in Rome, the phiale will be placed in a museum in Sicily for permanent exhibition.
The return was made possible by the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal, on January 24, to hear an appeal of earlier court rulings, in November 1997 and July 1999, that mandated forfeiture of the object to Italy. The decisions of the courts highlighted a division between the views of museum and academic professional organizations concerning the application of foreign patrimony laws and the National Stolen Property Act in such cases. In Steinhardt's 1999 appeal, the American Association of Museums, Association of Art Museum Directors, and other groups weighed in supporting his position, while the Archaeological Institute of America (ARCHAEOLOGY's parent organization), the Society for American Archaeology, American Anthropological Association, Society for Historical Archaeology, and others took an opposing position. In the event, this larger issue was not considered. Statements made on the customs forms accompanying the phiale remained the central issue, and in the 1999 appeal, the three-judge panel found, "There can be no dispute that the designation of Switzerland as the Phiale's country of origin and the listing of its value of $250,000 were false. Haber [Robert Haber, who acted as middleman for a Swiss dealer] had examined the Phiale in Sicily about a month before the sale to Steinhardt, and that the sale was for $1 million plus 15% commission." (Steinhardt's bill of sale from Haber stipulated that if "the object is confiscated or impounded by customs agents or a claim is made by any country or governmental agency whatsoever, full compensation will be made immediately to the purchaser.")