Photo Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
Michael Steinhardt in Jerusalem, June 4, 2015.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr. on Monday announced that Michael Steinhardt, one of the world’s largest ancient art collectors, has surrendered 180 stolen antiquities valued at $70 million 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.

According to DA Vance, the seized pieces were looted and illegally smuggled out of 11 countries, trafficked by 12 criminal smuggling networks, and lacked verifiable provenance before appearing on the international art market, according to the Statement of Facts summarizing the investigation.

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According to documents filed in court, the criminal investigation into Steinhardt began in February 2017. While investigating the Bull’s Head stolen from Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War, the DA’s Office determined Steinhardt had purchased the multi-million-dollar statue then subsequently loaned it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Months after seizing the piece, the D.A.’s Office announced the formation of its Antiquities Trafficking Unit with the repatriation of the Bull’s Head and the Calf Bearer, a second multi-million-dollar marble statute seized from Steinhardt, to the Lebanese Republic in December 2017.

In the process of uncovering the Lebanese statues, the DA’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. As part of this inquiry into criminal conduct by Steinhardt, the DA’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.

Steinhardt, 81, was described by Bloomberg in 2014 as “Wall Street’s greatest trader,” and in 2018, Forbes Magazine reported his net worth at $1.1 billion. According to an official NYU publication, the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University bears his name in recognition of two $10 million donations. In the 1990s, Steinhardt bought and donated Steeple Jason Island and Grand Jason Island in the Falkland Islands to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), along with $425,000 for a research station to be named after himself and his wife Judy. Steinhardt reportedly owns part of the Miami Marlins and the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball teams.

Steinhardt is also a mega-donor for Jewish causes and is a member of the “Mega Group” – a club of 20 of the wealthiest and most influential Jewish businessmen, formed by Leslie Wexner, chairman of Limited Inc., and Charles and Edgar Bronfman Sr., chairmen of Seagram. Steinhardt has donated more than $125 million to Jewish causes. Steinhardt founded a network of Hebrew-language charter schools, which are secular and open to both Jews and non-Jews. He has said, “these schools teach Hebrew in a way that is demonstrably superior to Jewish day schools.”

But Steinhardt is most renowned for his chairmanship of the board at The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life and Taglit-Birthright Israel. In 1999, he and Charles Bronfman co-founded Taglit-Birthright Israel, which has to date sent more than 700,000 young Jews ages 18 to 26 on an all-expenses-paid, 10-day trip to Israel.

Now the mega-donor is facing the humiliation of having to reach a plea deal to avoid going to prison.

“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 Vance. “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.”

“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. Accordingly, this agreement guarantees that 180 pieces will be returned expeditiously to their rightful owners in 11 countries rather than be held as evidence for the years necessary to complete the grand-jury indictment, trial, potential conviction, and sentence,” the Manhattan DA continued.

“This resolution also enables my Office to shield the identity of the many witnesses here and abroad whose names would be released at any trial, to protect the integrity of parallel investigations in each of the 11 countries with whom we are conducting joint investigations, and to avoid over-burdening resource-scarce nations who would be called upon to provide witnesses in any grand jury or trial. Finally, this agreement establishes that Steinhardt will be subject to an unprecedented lifetime ban on acquiring antiquities,” Vance said.

Steinhardt’s lawyers stated, “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.”

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David writes news at JewishPress.com.