Major New York Buyer of Looted Antiquities Ordered to Return Some Pieces but No Prosecution

By Lisa Vives, Global Information Network

NEW YORK (IDN) — A golden bowl, a ceremonial libations vessel, a marble statue and a small chest for human remains were among the 180 reputedly stolen antiquities that decorated the homes and offices of a Brooklyn billionaire whose collection of the ancient artefacts was valued at $80 million.

Under a deal struck by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr., a multi-year, multinational investigation of artefacts in the possession of hedge fund pioneer Michael Steinhardt will not be prosecuted.

Steinhardt is one of the world’s most prolific buyers of ancient art and a dedicated supporter of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which named one of its Greek art galleries the Judy and Michael H. Steinhardt Gallery.

When the government seized at least nine items from his private collection, including a terra-cotta flask from the fourth century B.C. and Proto-Corinthian figures from the seventh century B.C. Forbes magazine carried a piece on the scandal titled “Ancient History for Sale.”

According to the search warrants, the pieces were purchased within the last 12 years for a total cost of $1.1 million and there is a possible charge of possession of the stolen property, noted the Columbia University Journal of Law and the Arts. 

The seized pieces were looted and illegally smuggled out of 11 countries, trafficked by 12 criminal smuggling networks, and lacked verifiable provenance prior to appearing on the international art market. 

Prosecutors said Mr Steinhardt had owned and traded more than 1,000 antiquities since 1987, and his art collection was valued at about $200 million.

“For decades, Michael Steinhardt displayed a rapacious appetite for plundered artefacts 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,” District Attorney Vance was quoted to say in a press release from his office. (Steinhardt’s) 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.”

Joint investigations were conducted with authorities in Libya, Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey.

The investigation began in 2017 over a two-thousand-year-old Bull’s Head stolen from Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War. It was determined that Steinhardt had purchased the multimillion-dollar statue then subsequently loaned it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Following an order from New York prosecutors, the Met surrendered the bull’s head, which is believed to be a stolen item.

Vance continued: “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 favour a resolution that ensures that a substantial portion of the damage to world cultural heritage will be undone, once and for all.”

“This agreement establishes that Steinhardt will be subject to an unprecedented lifetime ban on acquiring antiquities,” he concluded.

Steinhardt’s lawyer praised the decision that ended with no charges against Steinhardt for items bought from “traffickers and tomb raiders” as long as Steinhardt returned them “expeditiously” to their native countries.

Mr. Steinhardt, 81, is a major contributor to New York University and to numerous charitable groups.  There is a Steinhardt Conservatory at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and a Steinhardt Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property has been on top of the radar screen of UNESCO, a U.N. cultural organization that condemned an upsurge in the looting of archaeological sites and the dismantling of ancient monuments as far back as 1930.

Their initiatives picked up steam this year at an international conference on the illicit trade in cultural goods estimated to be worth nearly $10 billion each year.

African countries which have sought the return of objects looted during the colonial era are Ethiopia, Benin, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Holland, and Nigeria. [IDN-InDepthNews – 20 December 2021]

Image source: African Art in MET

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