Michael Steinhardt, a billionaire New York financier and antiquities collector, has turned over surrendered 180 looted objects valued at $70 million and received an unprecedented lifetime ban on future acquisitions, according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. Steinhardt agreed to the forfeiture after a four-year investigation determined that the seized objects had been plundered and illegally smuggled out of 11 countries in an international trafficking operation. The works eventually appeared on the art market without paperwork establishing a verifiable provenance.
“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,” District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said 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.”
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The investigation into Steinhardt began in February 2017, after prosecutors determined that he had purchased a statue looted from Lebanon during the country’s Civil War, and subsequently loaned it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. An inquiry into his record of acquisitions only heightened suspicions of further criminal misconduct and led to the formation of a joint investigation with investigators in 11 countries—Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Turkey.
According to investigators, the seized wares, which decorated Steinhardt’s properties around the world, include a ceremonial vessel that depicts a stag’s head, purchased from the Merrin Gallery for $2.6 million in November 1991; a gold bowl looted from Nimrud, Iraq, and purchased without provenance paperwork, for $150,000 in July 2020, amid rampant looting by the Islamic State in the Levant; three stone death masks that date to 6000 B.C.E. and were purchased by Steinhardt for $400,000 in October 2007; and the “Ercolano Fresco,” purchased from accused trafficker Robert Hecht for $650,000 in November 1995.
Steinhardt will not face charges if he abides by all terms of the agreement. According to Vance, the items are to be “returned expeditiously to their rightful owners,” rather than held as evidence. The resolution will also help prosecutors “shield the identity of the many witnesses here and abroad whose names would be released at any trial.”
Steinhardt’s lawyer, Andrew J. Levander, said in a statement: “Mr. Steinhardt is pleased that the District Attorney’s yearslong investigation has concluded without any charges, and that items wrongfully taken by others will be returned to their native countries. Many of the dealers from whom Mr. Steinhardt bought these items made specific representations as to the dealers’ lawful title to the items, and to their alleged provenance. To the extent these representations were false, Mr. Steinhardt has reserved his rights to seek recompense from the dealers involved.”
Steinhardt has one of the most significant antiquities collections in the world. He also holds pieces by Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso, and Paul Cézanne, among others. A gallery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s ancient Greek art wing is named after him and his wife, Judy, as is a conservatory at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
His record with prosecutors over suspect antiques dealings dates back to the 1990s. In 1997, a federal judge ruled that a hammered gold bowl bought by Steinhardt for $1 million had been illegally imported. The court rejected his claim that he was an “innocent owner” with no knowledge of its illicit origins.
“Truthful identification of Italy on the customs forms would have placed the Customs Service on notice that an object of antiquity, dated 450 B.C., was being exported from a country with strict antiquity protection laws,” the judge ruled at the time.
In 2017, investigators seized from a marble statue looted from a temple in Sidon, Lebanon, spurring the formation of the multinational trafficking unit. The following year, his office and Manhattan home were raided, and several antiquities looted from Greece and Italy were confiscated.
According to authorities, the unit has recovered more than 3,000 items collectively valued at $200 million, and more than 1,500 have been returned to their owners. Hundreds are ready to be repatriated “as soon as the relevant countries are able to receive them amid the pandemic,” and more than 1,000 artifacts are being held awaiting criminal proceedings against the accused traffickers.