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Hedge fund pioneer and philanthropist Michael Steinhardt has surrendered 180 stolen antiquities valued at $70 million and has been banned for life from acquiring antiquities, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said Monday.
The surrender of the items comes after a probe that began in 2017 into the billionaire Steinhardt’s “criminal conduct,” the DA’s office said in a statement. The agreement ends a grand jury probe of Steinhardt, meaning he will not be criminally charged in the case, according to DA’s office.
“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, according to the Statement of Facts summarizing the investigation,” the office said.
Vance said that the agreement with Steinhardt, 80, will return the stolen items to their rightful owners in those countries, instead of being held as evidence “to complete the grand jury indictment, trial, potential conviction and sentence.”
The agreement comes three years after Steinhardt’s office and home were raided by investigators as part of Vance’s probe. The DA said Steinhardt’s agreement to accept a lifetime ban from acquiring antiquities was “unprecedented.”
“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 said.
Steinhardt founded his company Steinhardt Partners LLP in 1967. He closed the hedge fund in 1995. Steinhardt also served 15 years as chairman of the board of Wisdom Tree Investments before retiring in 2019.
Steinhardt’s lawyers, Andrew Levander and Theodore Wells Jr., in a statement, said, “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.”
“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,” the lawyer said. “To the extent these representations were false, Mr. Steinhardt has reserved his rights to seek recompense from the dealers involved.”
The DA’s office said that the probe began when investigators looked into the statue of a Lebanese bull’s head, which was stolen during the Lebanese Civil War.
That investigation determined Steinhardt had bought that multi-million-dollar statue and later loaned it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the office said. That statue was seized, as was a second marble statue of a calf bearer, which also was from Lebanon, and which had also been bought by Steinhardt for millions of dollars.
“In the process of uncovering the Lebanese statues, the D.A.’s Office learned that Steinhardt possessed additional looted antiquities at his apartment and office, and, soon after, initiated a grand jury criminal investigation into his acquisition, possession, and sale of more than 1,000 antiquities since at least 1987, the office said.
“As part of this inquiry into criminal conduct by Steinhardt, the D.A.’s Office executed 17 judicially-ordered search warrants and conducted joint investigations with law-enforcement authorities in 11 countries: Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Turkey.
Vance said in a statement, “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,”
“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,” Vance said.
In 2019, The New York Times reported that six women had accused Steinhardt of sexual harassment. He denied the allegations.
The Times report, which also cited a lawsuit filed by another woman, said he had made sexual requests when the women sought support from the philanthropist. The Times also reported that Steinhardt appeared in two sexual harassment lawsuits, but was not named as a defendant in either case.
The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life called the Times report “intentionally defamatory.”
But in a statement, the foundation also said Steinhardt’s “sense of humor can be insensitive, and he has apologized for the unintended bad feelings his remarks have caused.” The website includes a statement from the billionaire, who denies ever trying to touch anyone inappropriately.
Vance’s office detailed a number of the items surrendered by Steinhardt.
- 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 Alexandervia Seychelles-headquartered FAM Services for $575,000 in October 2016. Alexander instructed Steinhard 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 Hechtand and his antiquities restorer Harry Burki 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 Svatoslav 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.