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Billionaire surrenders $70 million in stolen artifacts to 11 countries, officials say

·4 min read

A billionaire with an “appetite for plundered items” surrendered stolen artifacts worth $70 million to 11 countries, officials in New York said.

Michael Steinhardt, known as “one of the world’s largest ancient art collectors,” agreed to hand over the 180 antiquities and is banned for life from ever acquiring such artifacts again, a Dec. 6 news release from the Manhattan district attorney’s office said.

Steinhardt is “a pioneer of the modern hedge fund” with a net worth of $1.2 billion, according to Forbes.

Much of the acquired art that was illegally smuggled dates back to ancient times, the release states, including a 2,400-year-old ceremonial stag’s head worth $3.5 million looted from Milas, Turkey.

“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.”

Certain stolen artifacts were trafficked after civil unrest or looting in the countries of their origin, according to the release.

Steinhardt relied on “the sprawling underworld of antiquities traffickers, crime bosses, money launderers, and tomb raiders” to “expand his collection,” Vance Jr. added, noting that the items will be “expeditiously” returned to “rightful owners in 11 countries.”

His agreement to surrender the artifacts means that the art will no longer be held as evidence for a “grand-jury indictment, trial, potential conviction and sentence,” according to Vance Jr., meaning Steinhardt won’t face prosecution.

“Mr. Steinhardt is pleased that the District Attorney’s years-long investigation has concluded without any charges, and that items wrongfully taken by others will be returned to their native countries,” lawyers for Steinhardt, Andrew J. Levander and Theodore V. Wells Jr., said in a statement provided to McClatchy News.

“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.”

The investigation

Authorities began to investigate the billionaire in February 2017, the release said citing court documents.

Under particular scrutiny was his alleged connection to a Bull’s Head statue stolen from Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War that lasted from 1975 to 1990.

It was determined Steinhardt bought the multi-million-dollar relic and then loaned it to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, according to the release.

Months later, the Bull’s Head was returned to the Lebanese Republic in December 2017 alongside another “multi-million-dollar marble statue” from the middle eastern nation, the Calf Bearer, that Steinhardt had, the district attorney’s office said.

The office announced the return of the items alongside the formation of the office’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit.

The Lebanese statues led to further discoveries of “additional looted antiquities” under Steinhardt’s possession on display in his apartment and office, according to the release.

A grand jury criminal investigation began “into his acquisition, possession, and sale of more than 1,000 antiquities since at least 1987,” the release stated.

Seized artifacts

Authorities found 171 out of 180 seized artifacts were first in the hands of antiquities traffickers with some that had prior convictions related to trafficking such items.

Other pieces surrendered by Steinhardt include a small chest for human remains, the Larnax, originating from the Greek island of Crete that’s estimated to be from 1400-1200 B.C.E. and valued at $1 million.

While under investigation, Steinhardt pointed to the Larnax and told an investigator that there was no known origin for the chest, according to the release.

Other items surrendered include a gold bowl looted from Iraq worth $200,000 and three death masks estimated to be from 6000 to 7000 B.C.E. from Israel worth $650,000, the district attorney’s office said.

“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,” Vance Jr. said.

McClatchy News has reached out to the district attorney’s office for further comment.

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