New York Antiquities Collector Returns 180 Stolen Artifacts Worth $70 Million
A deal made with the Manhattan district attorney bars billionaire Michael Steinhardt from purchasing ancient objects for the rest of his life
One of the world’s most prolific antiquities collectors has been banned for life from purchasing any other artifacts. As Tom Mashberg reports for the New York Times, billionaire hedge fund manager Michael H. Steinhardt also surrendered 180 stolen relics worth more than $70 million as part of an agreement with the Manhattan District Attorney’s (D.A.) Office.
The deal follows a four-year investigation that traced dozens of looted goods back to Steinhardt’s apartment and office. Smuggled out of 11 countries by 12 criminal networks, the artifacts appeared on the international art market without legal paperwork, reports Jack Guy for CNN. Authorities executed 17 search warrants and conducted joint investigations with authorities in Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Turkey.
“For decades, Michael Steinhardt displayed a rapacious appetite for plundered artifacts without concern for the legality of his actions, the legitimacy of the pieces he bought and sold, or the grievous cultural damage he wrought across the globe,” says Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. in a statement. “His pursuit of ‘new’ additions to showcase and sell knew no geographic or moral boundaries, as reflected in the sprawling underworld of antiquities traffickers, crime bosses, money launderers, and tomb raiders he relied upon to expand his collection.”
According to the D.A.’s office, the surrendered artifacts will now be returned to their native countries. The objects include the Stag’s Head Rhyton, a ceremonial vessel dated to 400 B.C.E.; the Larnax, a small chest for human remains dated to between 1400 and 1200 B.C.E.; a fresco looted from a Roman villa at Herculaneum; and a gold bowl taken from Nimrud in Iraq.
“Steinhardt viewed these precious artifacts as simple commodities—things to collect and own,” says Ricky J. Patel, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations who assisted in the inquiry, in the statement. “He failed to respect that these treasures represent the heritage of cultures around the world from which these items were looted, often during times of strife and unrest.”
In light of the D.A.’s investigation, student government leaders at New York University (NYU) are calling for school officials to remove the billionaire’s name from the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. A similar campaign launched in 2019, when Steinhardt was accused of sexual harassment by multiple women, was unsuccessful. Spokesperson John Beckman tells Kristian Burt of the student-run Washington Square News that NYU’s board of trustee plans to investigate Steinhardt’s conduct and “determine what steps may be warranted.”
Speaking with Washington Square News for a separate article, Anthony Cruz, president of the school’s undergraduate student government, says, “Having someone be the namesake of our school that has committed actions polar opposite of what we teach on those very same topics to students, I think it would really be a disgrace.”
Steinhardt has faced legal challenges over his collecting practices in the past. In 1997, a federal judge ruled that he had illegally imported a gold bowl valued at $1 million from Italy and rejected the collector’s contention that he was an “innocent owner” with no knowledge of the object’s unsavory past, per the Times.
The D.A.’s inquiry followed the 2017 seizure of a marble statue stolen from Lebanon, which Steinhardt agreed to surrender. In 2018, investigators raided the billionaire’s home and office, taking several artifacts reportedly looted from Greece and Italy.
Forensic archaeologist Christos Tsiogiannis tells the Guardian’s Dalya Alberge that many of the items in Steinhardt’s collection were initially listed by the “most reputable” dealers and auction houses in the world. Tsiogiannis used photos confiscated from convicted antiquities traffickers to identify the artifacts.
“I first alerted the D.A.’s office in New York on the Steinhardt case in November 2014, when I identified an extremely rare prehistoric Sardinian idol, valued at $800,000 [to] $1.2 [million], put on auction by Steinhardt at Christie’s in New York,” the archaeologist tells the Guardian. “I found an image of the same idol, broken in pieces, in the archive confiscated from the notorious and convicted antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici.”
As Vance explains in the statement, the D.A.’s office declined to prosecute Steinhardt as long as he abides by the terms of their agreement. By reaching a deal rather than taking the case to trial, authorities ensured that the looted artifacts “will be returned expeditiously to their rightful owners ... rather than be held as evidence.”
In a separate statement quoted by the Times, Steinhardt’s lawyers say their client is “pleased that the district attorney’s years-long investigation has concluded without any charges, and that items wrongfully taken by others will be returned to their native countries.”