American patron of Israeli archaeology becomes focus of New York’s antiquities trafficking unit


(JTA) – The crusading New York prosecutor who has been exposing illicit trafficking in the antiquities market through a succession of high-profile raids has zeroed in on his next big target: the private collection of Shelby White, the widow of a Wall Street legend and philanthropist known for donating to Jewish museums in New York and to the Israeli government agency charged with policing the antiquities trade. 

As a result of the ongoing investigation into looted artifacts by Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, White has already relinquished at least two dozen items worth at least $20 million, according to reporting by New York magazine. Some of those artifacts have been returned to Italy and Turkey in recent months. 

A request for comment submitted to a charity headed by White received no reply. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg, Jr. thanked White in a Feb. 3 press release for cooperation with investigators. 

The focus on White comes after Bogdanos’ Antiquities Trafficking Unit reached an unprecedented deal in December 2021 with another prominent antiquities collector and donor to Jewish causes. Michael Steinhardt, the former investor who founded Birthright Israel, surrendered 180 artifacts, including some that were stolen from Israel, and committed to never buying antiquities again in an agreement that spared him from possible criminal charges. 

White serves as chair of an American charity called the Friends of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The charity funnels tax-exempt donations to an Israeli government office and law enforcement agency that sponsors archeological excavations and regulates the buying and selling of antiquities. 

White has donated directly to the Israel Antiquities Authority through her family’s charity, the Leon Levy Foundation, which is named in honor of her late husband, a pioneer of mutual funds. Last June, the authority unveiled the Shelby White & Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Archaeological Center near Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport.

Many Jewish cultural institutions in New York have benefited from White’s donations. She is a director of the Center for Jewish History, which thanked her in 2010 for an $860,000 gift that has helped with the preservation of archival materials. Her foundation’s website also lists as grantees the Jewish Museum, the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side and a program dedicated to Jewish material culture at the Bard Graduate Center. 

Since the Manhattan district attorney’s office put him at the head of a newly created antiquities trafficking unit in 2010, Bogdanos has upended the market for archaeological artifacts. Using a previously obscure New York law, he convinced the courts to regard the possession of stolen antiquities as potentially criminal, even if a collector had legally purchased the looted item in question. Since many of the antiquities that have entered the United States are believed to have been looted at one point in time, this legal precedent has jeopardized the status of many if not all major collections held in museums and by private individuals. 

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