Billionaire Relinquishes $70 Million in Antiquities, Gets Lifetime Ban From Collecting, Per Manhattan DA

  • December 07, 2021 12:01

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Pictured (from left to right): The Larnax, a Death Mask, and Stag’s Head Rhyton.

Billionaire hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt, 81, will hand over 180 stolen objects valued at $70 million and has received a first-of-its-kind lifetime ban on acquiring antiquities, the Manhattan District Attorney's office announced on Monday.

The resolution came after a multi-year, multi-national investigation into Steinhardt's vast collection. Seized pieces were trafficked by 12 criminal smuggling networks and lacked verifiable provenance prior to appearing on the international art market, according to investigators. Steinhardt will not face criminal charges for acquiring pieces that were illegally smuggled out of 11 countries, prosecutors said.

Sparking the initial investigation in 2017 was Steinhardt's loan of this piece to The Met. Marble Head of a Bull, ca. 500–460 B.C. Greek. H. 13 in. (33 cm). Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“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, Jr. “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."

The objects will be repatriated to their countries of origin, including: Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Turkey.

“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 HSI New York Acting Special Agent in Charge Ricky J. Patel. 

The criminal investigation into Steinhardt began in 2017, and encompassed more than 1,000 antiquities that he acquired since at least 1987. An initial finding led to more investigations, beginning with a Bull’s Head stolen from Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War which Steinhardt had loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

"Upon a Met curator's discovery that this item on loan may have been stolen from government storage during the Lebanese civil war, the Museum took immediate action. We contacted the Lebanese government and the lender, we took the item off display, and we have been working with federal and state authorities, which recently involved delivering the Head of the Bull to the Manhattan DA upon its request," said the museum's spokesperson, Kenneth Waith, in a statement in 2017.

Among the pieces recently surrendered in the agreement, per the D.A.'s Office:  

Recovered from Steinhardt's collection in 2018 by investigators, a Proto-Corinthian figure that depicts an owl, from the sixth century B.C.
  • The Stag’s Head Rhyton, depicting a finely wrought stag’s head in the form of a ceremonial vessel for libations, purchased from The Merrin Gallery for $2.6 million in November 1991. The item, which dates to 400 B.C.E., first appeared without provenance on the international art market after rampant looting in Milas, Turkey. In March 1993, STEINHARDT loaned the Stag’s Head Rhyton to the Met, where it remained until the D.A.’s Office applied for and received a warrant to seize it. Today, the Stag’s Head Rhyton is valued at $3.5 million.
  • The Larnax, a small chest for human remains from Greek Island of Crete that dates between 1400-1200 B.C.E., purchased from known antiquities trafficker EUGENE ALEXANDER via Seychelles-headquartered FAM Services for $575,000 in October 2016. ALEXANDER instructed STEINHARDT to pay FAM Services via SATABANK, a Malta-based financial institution later suspended for money laundering. While complaining about a subpoena requesting provenance documentation for a different stolen antiquity, STEINHARDT pointed to the Larnax and said to an investigator with A.T.U.: “You see this piece? There’s no provenance for it. If I see a piece and I like it, then I buy it.” Today, the Larnax is valued at $1 million.
  • The Ercolano Fresco purchased from convicted antiquities trafficker ROBERT HECHT and his antiquities restorer HARRY BÜRKI with no prior provenance for $650,000 in November 1995. Depicting an infant Hercules strangling a snake sent by Hera to slay him, the Ercolano Fresco dates to 50 C.E. and was looted in 1995 from a Roman villa in the ruins of Herculaneum, located near modern Naples in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. It first appeared on the international art market on November 10, 1995 when HECHT’s business partner wrote STEINHARDT regarding a “crate being delivered to you soon” with the artifact inside. Today, the Ercolano Fresco is valued at $1 million. 
  • The Gold Bowl looted from Nimrud, Iraq, and purchased from SVYATOSLAV KONKIN with no prior provenance for $150,000 in July 2020. Beginning in 2015, objects from Nimrud were trafficked when the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targeted cultural heritage from Nimrud, Hatra, and Khorsabad, particularly ancient objects made of gold or precious metal. The Gold Bowl, which is crafted from gold with a scalloped flower design, first surfaced on the international art market in October 2019, when a Customs and Border Patrol officer notified the D.A.’s Office that KONKIN was on a flight from Hong Kong to Newark, New Jersey, hand-carrying the Gold Bowl for STEINHARDT. Today, the Gold Bowl is valued at $200,000. 
  • Three Death Masks purchased from known antiquities trafficker GIL CHAYA with no provenance whatsoever for $400,000 in October 2007, less than a year after they surfaced on the international art market. The Death Masks (circa 6000 to 7000 B.C.E.) were crafted from stone and originated in the foothills of the Judean mountains, most likely in the Shephelah in Israel. They appear soil-encrusted and covered in dirt in photographs recovered by Israeli law-enforcement authorities. Today, the Death Masks are valued at $650,000.

Read more at Associated Press via NBC


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