US billionaire to return stolen antiquities worth £53m

Michael Steinhardt ‘displayed a rapacious appetite for plundered artefacts without concern for the legality of his actions’, lawyers said.

Michael Steinhardt
Michael Steinhardt

US billionaire hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt has agreed to turn over 70 million US dollars (£53 million) worth of stolen antiquities and will be subject to an unprecedented lifetime ban on acquiring antiquities, the Manhattan district attorney has announced.

In return, Mr Steinhardt, a philanthropist who is chair of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life and co-founder of Birthright Israel – an organisation that sends Jewish children on free trips to Israel – will not face criminal charges for acquiring pieces that were illegally smuggled out of 11 countries including Egypt, Greece, Israel, Syria and Turkey, prosecutors said.

“For decades, Michael Steinhardt displayed a rapacious appetite for plundered artefacts 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 news 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.”

Mr Steinhardt said in a prepared statement issued by his lawyers 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”.

Lawyers Andrew J Levander and Theodore V Wells Jr said that many of the dealers from whom Mr Steinhardt bought the items had “made specific representations as to the dealers’ lawful title to the items, and to their alleged provenance”.

According to prosecutors, while complaining about a subpoena requesting documentation for an antiquity in May 2017, Mr Steinhardt pointed to a small chest from Greece and said to an investigator: “You see this piece? There’s no provenance for it. If I see a piece and I like it, then I buy it.”

Many of the pieces Mr Steinhardt acquired were removed from their countries of origin during times of war or civil unrest, prosecutors said.

Mr Steinhardt, who turns 81 on Tuesday, founded the hedge fund Steinhardt Partners in 1967 and closed it in 1995. He came out of retirement in 2004 to head Wisdom Tree Investments.

New York University named its Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development after Mr Steinhardt in recognition of two 10 million US dollars (£7.6 million) donations.

Manhattan prosecutors began investigating Mr Steinhardt’s collection of ancient artefacts in 2017 and raided his office and his Manhattan home in 2018, seizing several artworks that investigators said had been looted.

The items surrendered by Mr Steinhardt include a stag’s head in the form of a ceremonial vessel, dating from 400BC, which prosecutors say appeared without provenance on the international market after rampant looting in Milas, Turkey. The stag’s head is valued at 3.5 million US dollars (£2.7 million), the district attorney said.

There was also the chest for human remains from the Greek Island of Crete, called a larnax and dating from around 1300BC, which prosecutors said was purchased from a known antiquities trafficker.

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