Yesterday, Michael H. Steinhardt, billionaire hedge fund manager and one of the world’s foremost antiquities collectors, agreed to relinquish 180 stolen antiquities, trafficked from 11 countries and worth approximately $70 million in total. Citing his “rapacious appetite for plundered artifacts,” the Manhattan district attorney’s office imposed a lifetime ban on acquiring antiquities on him — the first time such a prohibition has been placed on a collector in the United States or abroad. The agreement marks the conclusion of an almost five-year-long investigation conducted by the Antiquities Trafficking Unit, involving the collaboration of 11 countries from which the objects were originally stolen. Christos Tsirogiannis, a forensic archaeologist who assisted in the landmark investigation, called it “an extremely significant and important case.”
Steinhardt — who Forbes once called “Wall Street’s greatest trader” and who several women have accused of sexual harassment — seems to think that “asking forgiveness, not permission” is the right way to go. That philosophy, it turns out, is unacceptable when it’s taking rare and ancient artifacts that aren’t yours, or making unwanted sexual advances at your employees. Despite the severity of his pattern of purchasing stolen goods — district attorney Cy Vance Jr. called his “decades-long indifference to the rights of peoples to their own sacred treasures… appalling” — Steinhardt faces no criminal charges. That’s because the DA’s office made the call to prioritize the timely repatriation of those objects and the protection of witnesses over the battle to convict Steinhardt in court, which would undoubtedly have been costly and lengthy.
For his part, Steinhardt’s lawyer said in a statement that Steinhardt was “pleased” with the outcome of the investigation, and implied that he knew nothing of the questionable provenance of the items. But this is not the first time Steinhardt has been notified that his collection has contained illicitly-procured objects. In 1995, a $1 million gold ceremonial bowl was seized from his home and later ruled to have been illegally imported from Italy. The judge in that case also rejected Steinhardt’s portrayal of himself as an “innocent owner.” In response to the court ruling, his lawyer at the time questioned why the US was “acting on the side of the Italian Government instead of an American citizen.”
Of the antiquities that will be returned, 171 of 180 were cross-referenced with photographs of inventories of accused antiquities dealers, including that of Giacomo Medici, convicted in 2004 for running one of the most extensive antiquities networks in the world. (It is an open question whether revelations made in this investigation will impact future prosecutions of antique traffickers.) According to Tsirogiannis, many of those images that researchers consulted showed the objects covered in soil and encrustations, documented after excavation and prior to any restoration work. Later, those same objects appeared photographed, clean and lustrous, in auction and museum catalogues, often with fabricated provenance histories that obscured the criminal transactions that took place along the way.
One of the most expensive objects in Steinhardt’s collection that has been confiscated is an archaic Greek marble statue of a youth. It was first photographed post-excavation with its legs and arms intact. Then its legs and arms were broken off the statue. Later photos showed the statue pieced back together. “It shows that traffickers deliberately broke it to be able to transport it without raising suspicion,” Tsirogiannis explains. “These people — who talk about the beauty of the art — only care about the money and the market. They wouldn’t even think to pass these objects if there was no price on them.”
Tsirogiannis doesn’t limit his criticism to “the sprawling underworld of antiquities traffickers, crime bosses, money launderers, and tomb raiders” that the district attorney disparaged in his statement. Tsirogiannis pins culpability on an entire network of actors who routinely turn a blind eye to theft, laundering, and obfuscation rife in the art market — including supposedly “reputable” auction houses and galleries.
His involvement in the Steinhardt investigation began in December 2014, when Michael and Judy Steinhardt offered two antiquities — a rare prehistoric idol from Sardinia and a terracotta vase in the shape of a rooster — up for auction at Christie’s. Tsirogiannis identified them as pieces that had appeared in Giacomo Medici’s photographic archives, and immediately flagged them to American authorities. They were pulled from the auction, but instead of further inquiring into the origins of those objects, Steinhardt simply left them in his home. They remained there for three years until Steinhardt’s home and office were raided and the items seized.
Any auction house or any prospective buyer, Tsirogiannis says, is responsible for doing something very simple before making a transaction: “to send an email with an attachment containing a photograph of the object” to the authorities of the object’s country of origin to confirm its validity.
“This very simple, straightforward process has been repeatedly and systematically avoided, both by collectors and auction houses — and it’s even avoided by museums and dealers,” Tsirogiannis says. “That level of negligence is really just actually intentional… Every collector has an equally high responsibility as a dealer or a member of the market to check the provenance of the object and exercise due diligence in the case of every object before they buy.”
Steinhardt’s name graces a conservatory in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, a gallery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University. Nicholas Mirzoeff, a professor of media, culture and communication at NYU–Steinhardt and a Hyperallergic contributor, says that many of his colleagues and students are “working intellectually and politically to deal with the return of looted cultural property. To wake up and discover that every time you send an email, every time you put out your business card, every time you write a letter of recommendation, you’re forwarding the name of a serial looter and a serial sexual harasser— it is at best, very disappointing.” He says there are “enormous concerns” about the name of the school among those he works with.
“What we’re talking about is a man who’s buying art that was stolen by terrorists,” Mirzoeff points out, referencing a gold bowl in Steinhardt’s collection that was looted from northern Iraq and trafficked by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The culmination of the DA office’s investigation, Tsirogiannis says, “sends a clear message to the art world and its clients to the market and its clients globally: you are not going to be excused, and in fact, there will be serious consequences — loss of objects, loss of money, negative publicity, and the like.” The New York investigation is an example that should be followed by prosecution offices around the world, he says.