US Philanthropist Surrenders Looted Antiquities Worth $70 Million

Michael Steinhardt, a New York-based hedge fund manager and philanthropist, has surrendered more than 180 antiquities which were believed to have been looted or stolen from 11 different countries, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office revealed in a statement earlier this week.

Steinhardt-768x285Some of the artifacts Steinhardt surrendered. (Photo: Manhattan District Attorney's Office)Forbes estimates Steinhardt to be worth as much as US$1.1 billion. His name can be seen on institutions across New York City and beyond, from New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, to the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and Tel Aviv’s Steinhardt Museum of Natural History.

He was a prolific donor to both Democratic and Republican politicians. He was also a prolific customer of the global trade in illegal antiquities.

“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,” said District Attorney Cyrus Vance. “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 DA, the artifacts are valued at as much as US$70 million and included Roman frescos from the foothills of Mount Vesuvius; a golden bowl from Nimrud, Iraq, which was likely trafficked by the Islamic State; 8,000-year-old death masks from the Judean hills in modern day Israel; and an ancient Greek drinking horn worth over $2.5 million that Steinhardt loaned to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met.)

“Steinhardt viewed these precious artifacts as simple commodities – things to collect and own. 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,” said Ricky J. Patel, Homeland Security Investigations New York Acting Special Agent in Charge.

The illegal antiquities trade is a multi-billion-dollar global industry, according to a 2018 report by Standard Charter Bank. The illicit trade benefits  not just high society art aficionados like Steinhardt, but, in the countries where the material is looted, it is often a major funding source for organized criminals and militant groups like the Islamic State. The looting of cultural property from active war zones is considered a war crime under the 1954 Hague Convention.

It is not easy to prove when and under what legal circumstances an artifact was dug out of the ground, especially when it may have been circulating on the market for decades. Most dealers are required to offer some statement of provenance -- a history of the artifact’s ownership -- though too often details are sketchy.

According to the DA, Steinhardt boasted about ignoring even those weak standards. “You see this piece? There’s no provenance for it. If I see a piece and I like it, then I buy it,” Steinhardt once said.

The investigation into his actions began in 2017, when the DA discovered that a bull’s-head statue that Steinhardt had purchased and loaned to the Met had been looted from Lebanon during its civil war. Of the more than 1,000 artifacts that he had acquired, possessed and sold, the DA was able to prove that 180 of them were stolen or looted.

Despite those facts, the 81-year-old will not face further prosecution after entering into an agreement with the DA.

“Even though Steinhardt’s decades-long indifference to the rights of peoples to their own sacred treasures is appalling, the interests of justice prior to indictment and trial favor a resolution that ensures that a substantial portion of the damage to world cultural heritage will be undone, once and for all,” said Vance. “Accordingly, this agreement guarantees that 180 pieces will be returned expeditiously to their rightful owners in 11 countries rather than be held as evidence for the years necessary to complete the grand-jury indictment, trial, potential conviction, and sentence.

“This resolution also enables my office to shield the identity of the many witnesses here and abroad whose names would be released at any trial,” he added.

Under the agreement Steinhardt has also received a lifetime ban on possessing any object older than the 16th century.