Billionaire collector Michael Steinhardt surrenders 180 stolen artefacts worth $70m

The items have been under investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney since 2017

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Collector Michael Steinhardt in 2017 Photo by Michael Brochstein/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News

Collector Michael Steinhardt in 2017 Photo by Michael Brochstein/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News

Michael Steinhardt, the 81-year-old hedge-fund billionaire, art collector and philanthropist, is being forced to surrender 180 stolen antiquities—valued at roughly $70m—to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit. Steinhardt will also be barred for life from acquiring further antiquities in what the DA’s office is calling a “first-of-its-kind lifetime ban”. Investigations into these artefacts have been ongoing since 2017 and involved 17 search warrants and the cooperation of officials across 11 countries.

“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.” says Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance in a statement.  “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.”

So long as Steinhardt agrees to the terms of the deal, no charges will be filed against him. This will allow for the items to “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,” says Vance.

Included among this lot of 180 antiquities are: a rhyton, or ceremonial vessel, fashioned in the shape of a stag’s head, which dates to roughly 400BCE and was purchased $2.6m in November 1991; a small chest used for human remains known as a larnax, which dates between 1400-1200BCE, is valued at $1m and comes from the island of Crete; and the “Ercolano Fresco”, purchased in 1995 for $650,000 from antiquities dealer Robert Hecht, who faced a slew of trafficking charges before his 2012 death.

This is not the first time that Steinhardt—whose philanthropic legacies include  the Steinhardt conservatory at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Steinhardt Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development—has been in hot water for his antiquities habit. In 1997 a judge ruled he had illegally imported a golden bowl from Italy, which dated back to 450BCE and cost $1m, and a 2018 raid on Steinhardt’s home and office saw the surrender of several ancient objects that investigators said had been looted from Greece and Italy.

In 2019, Steinhardt was accused of several acts of sexual harassment, though he denies many of the accusations. That same year he left the non-governing advisory board for Christie’s Americas.

In a statement on Monday quoted by The New York Times, his lawyer, Andrew J. Levander, said: “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.”

Earlier this year, a judge in New York’s state supreme court dismissed a lawsuit brought by Steinhardt against Hirschl and Adler Gallery over a Gilbert Charles Stuart portrait of George Washington. Steinhardt had consigned the work to the gallery with a guarantee that its sale would bring him $10m. When the gallery sold the painting for $12m, Steinhardt sued, though he did not claim the terms of the agreement had been broken and ultimately the suit was dismissed.

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