US billionaire gives back 180 stolen artworks and antiquities worth $70m to avoid trial

Surrendered works were illegally smuggled out of 11 countries, including Egypt, Greece, and Israel

Sravasti Dasgupta
Tuesday 07 December 2021 08:15
<p>Hedge fund manager and art collector Michael Steinhardt</p>

Hedge fund manager and art collector Michael Steinhardt

Billionaire hedge fund manager and art collector Michael Steinhardt has surrendered pieces of art and antiquities stolen from across the world estimated to be worth $70m (£52.6m), in a bid to avoid criminal charges.

Mr Steinhardt, who turns 81 on Tuesday, returned 180 works of stolen antiquities and “received a first-of-its-kind lifetime ban on acquiring antiquities, following the resolution of a multi-year, multi-national investigation into his criminal conduct,” the Manhattan district attorney said in a statement.

“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 summarising the investigation,” the statement added.

Mr Steinhardt founded the hedge fund Steinhardt Partners in 1967, which he closed in 1995. In 2004, he came out of retirement to head WisdomTree Investments.

Investigation into his collection of ancient artifacts began in February 2017.

Manhattan prosecutors conducted raids on his office and his house in 2017 and 2018 respectively, and seized several artworks that investigators said had been looted.

“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,” Mr Vance added.

In a statement through his lawyers, Mr Steinhardt said that he was “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”, reported the Associated Press.

The district attorney’s office said that these works will be returned to 11 countries, including Egypt, Greece, Israel, Syria and Turkey, and will not be held as evidence for the years necessary to complete the grand-jury indictment, trial, potential conviction, and sentence.

The agreement to return the antiquities also allows the district attorney’s office to protect witnesses across these countries where joint investigations are underway.

Many of the stolen pieces were removed from their countries during civil war or unrest, the district attorney’s office said.

“The Stag’s Head Rhyton”, a ceremonial libation vessel in the form of a stag’s head, which is valued at $3.5 million (£2.6 million) and dates to 400 BCE, is among the items that Mr Steinhardt has surrendered. It first appeared without provenance on the international art market after rampant looting in Milas, Turkey.

Other surrendered items include “The Larnax”, a small chest for human remains from the Greek Island of Crete that dates between 1400 BCE and 1200 BCE; “The Gold Bowl” looted from Nimrud, Iraq, and purchased with no prior record of ownership for $150,000 (£112,905) in July 2020; and “Three Death Masks”, also purchased with no provenance for $400,000 (£301,082), in October 2007, less than a year after they surfaced on the international art market.

“Steinhardt viewed these precious artifacts as simple commodities – things to collect and own,” said said Ricky J Patel, Homeland Security Investigations New York acting special agent in charge. “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.”

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