Chastised US tycoon returns $70m of looted antiquities from Iraq, Lebanon and beyond

Michael Steinhardt was forced to hand over a collection that authorities said had been plundered and illegally smuggled out of 11 countries

A gold bowl looted from Nimrud, Iraq. Photo: Manhattan District Attorney’s Office
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US hedge fund tycoon Michael Steinhardt has surrendered $70 million of stolen antiquities, several of which came from the Middle East, and accepted a lifetime ban on acquiring more historic artefacts, New York prosecutors have said.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance said Mr Steinhardt, a billionaire financier and philanthropist, had bought antiquities stolen from Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and other countries, many of which passed through the hands of antique traffickers.

They included a multi-million-dollar bull’s head statue stolen from Lebanon during its civil war, a gold bowl looted from Iraq during the ISIS expansion, and a gold coffin stolen from Egypt in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution. Three stone death masks, approximately 9,000 years old, originated in the Judean foothills in Israel.

"For decades, Michael Steinhardt displayed a rapacious appetite for plundered artefacts without concern for the legality of his actions,” Mr Vance said in a statement on Monday.

He cared little about the “legitimacy of the pieces he bought and sold, or the grievous cultural damage he wrought across the globe," added the prosecutor.

Mr Steinhardt denied criminal wrongdoing in resolving the matter, which ended a grand jury investigation into him.

Still, the deal involves a lifetime ban from acquiring antiques on the legal art market.

Mr Steinhardt’s lawyers said in a statement he was pleased that the investigation was over, and “items wrongfully taken by others will be returned to their native countries”.

They also said Mr Steinhardt may seek compensation from dealers who misled him.

Mr Steinhardt, 81, built his wealth running the hedge fund Steinhardt Partners, which he closed in 1995 to focus on Jewish charity work.

He is worth $1.2 billion, according to Forbes magazine, and is a big donor to such institutions as New York University and the Metropolitan Museum, which named a gallery after him.

Mr Vance said the antiquities will be returned to their rightful owners in Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Turkey. Law enforcement in these countries assisted in the probe.

According to a 142-page case file, 138 of the antiquities came from Greece, Israel or Italy, with Mr Steinhardt once acknowledging that a majority of items he bought from one dealer "did not have provenance".

Among the antiquities was a 4th century BC wrought Grecian stag’s head worth $3.5 million that Steinhardt loaned in 1993 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The stag’s head had been “Found in Western Turkey”, according to undated handwritten notes in Mr Steinhardt's records.

“Information from a seller identifying the find spot of an unprovenanced antiquity is often an indication that it has been looted,” the case file said.

Mr Vance formed an antiquities trafficking unit in December 2017. He leaves office after 12 years at the end of the month.

Updated: December 07, 2021, 6:23 PM