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New York Imposes Lifetime Ban on Collecting Antiquities for Philanthropist with ‘Rapacious Appetite for Plundered Artifacts’

Michael Steinhardt

Image via YouTube screengrab/CUNY TV

A well-known collector of ancient artifacts has been banned from the practice for life, following a multi-year investigation into his collection practices.

Michael Steinhardt, 80, has surrendered 180 stolen antiquities valued at $70 million, according to a press release from outgoing Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s office Monday.

According to Vance, Steinhardt acquired pieces that had been looted and illegally smuggled out of 11 countries, trafficked by 12 criminal smuggling networks, and lacked verifiable provenance. The ban on acquiring antiquities is the first of its kind, according to the DA.

The 180 artifacts will be repatriated to 11 countries, according to the press release.

“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,” Vance said in the press release. “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.”

Artifacts surrendered by Michael Steinhardt include (L-R) the Larnax, a Death Mask, and Stag's Head Rhyton.

Artifacts surrendered by Michael Steinhardt include (L-R) the Larnax, valued at $1 million; a Death Mask, one of three worth $650,000; and the Stag’s Head Rhyton, valued at $3.5 million (courtesy New York District Attorney’s Office)

According to the DA’s office, the criminal investigation into Steinhardt dates back to February 2017, when the DA was looking into the “Bull’s Head” artifact stolen from Lebanon during the Lebanese civil war.

“[T]he D.A.’s office determined Steinhardt had purchased the multi-million dollar statue then subsequently loaned it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” the press release said. The DA seized the 2,300 year-old statue from the Met in 2017, after a curator raised concerns about its provenance to Lebanese officials, who then requested the artifact’s return.

The Bull’s Head investigation, along with an investigation into another Lebanese statute called “Calf Bearer,” led to the formation of the New York DA’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit. It also led to the discovery of what the DA’s office calls Steinhardt’s “acquisition, possession, and sale of more tan 1,000 antiquities since at least 1987.” Here are some of the antiquities surrendered, according to the press release:

  • 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.

The DA’s office ultimately executed 17 search warrants and conducted joint investigations with authorities in 11 countries in connection with its pursuit of Steinhardt.

“Of Steinhardt’s acquisitions, the D.A.’s Office developed compelling evidence that 180 were stolen from their country of origin,” the press release says. “In addition to their universal lack of provenance, the pieces exhibited numerous other evidentiary indicators of looting. Prior to Steinhardt’s purchase, 171 of the 180 seized antiquities first surfaced in the possession of individuals who law-enforcement authorities later determined to be antiquities traffickers—some of whom have been convicted of antiquities trafficking; 101 first appeared dirty (or unrestored) in photographs; and 100 appeared covered in dirt or encrustations prior to Steinhardt’s purchase.”

The DA’s office also said that many of the seized artifacts were trafficked from their countries of origin following civil unrest or looting.

“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 in the press release.

The criminal investigation is not Steinhardt’s only high-profile controversy in recent years. In March 2019, the New York Times reported on sexual harassment allegations against Steinhardt by seven women who worked at nonprofit organizations founded or backed by him.

Steinhardt’s foundations have given at least $127 million to charitable causes since 2003, according to the Times report. He “wields his widest influence” in the world of Jewish philanthropy, the Times reported, but has also given millions to “city institutions” such as New York University, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Steinhardt, who reportedly considered legal action against the Times over the article, said in a statement that he regretted comments he made in professional settings that were meant humorously. He denied touching anyone inappropriately, but apologized for his “inappropriate” comments, the Times reported.

Steinhardt’s Jewish philanthropies include the program known as Birthright Israel, which sends Jewish young adults on free trips to Israel. His Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life has focused on expanding Hebrew and Jewish education, and the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv is named after him.

“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,” Steinhardt’s lawyers Andrew J. Levander and Theodore V. Wells Jr. said in a statement. “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.”

[Editor’s note: This story has been update to include a statement from Steinhardt’s lawyers.]

[Images via YouTube screengrab/CUNY TV, New York District Attorney’s office]

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