Billionaire hands over $70 million of stolen artifacts

The Stag's Head Rhyton dates back to 400 BC and was looted from Milas, Turkey.
The Stag's Head Rhyton dates back to 400 BC and was looted from Milas, Turkey. (Image credit: New York District Attorneys Office)

A billionaire hedge-fund manager has surrendered 180 stolen artifacts worth $70 million and has received a lifetime ban on acquiring more relics as part of a deal struck with the Manhattan district attorney's office.

Manhattan District Attorney (DA) Cyrus Vance, Jr. said in a statement that Michael Steinhardt, the 81-year-old founder of Steinhardt Partners and former chairman of the board of WisdomTree Investments, "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." 

The DA's office said it had found "compelling evidence" that Steinhardt's extensive collection — which includes stone death masks from Israel, a chest for human remains from Crete and a fresco ripped from the walls of an ancient Roman villa — came from 11 countries and that at least 171 relics passed through trafficking networks before he bought them. 

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"The seized pieces were looted and illegally smuggled out of 11 countries, trafficked by 12 criminal smuggling networks, and lacked verifiable provenance prior to appearing on the international art market, according to the Statement of Facts summarizing the investigation," the office said in the statement.

The deal marks the end of an international grand jury investigation, beginning in 2017, in which the DA's office collaborated with law-enforcement authorities in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan Greece, Bulgaria, Israel, Italy and Turkey. 

The Larnax, a 1400-1200 BC chest for human remains taken from Crete.

The Larnax, a 1400-1200 BC chest for human remains taken from Crete. (Image credit: New York District Attorneys Office)

The DA began investigating Steinhardt in 2010, after he acquired a 2,300-year-old marble bull's head from Lebanon, which is believed to have been stolen from the country during its 15-year-long civil war, which ended in 1990.

"In the process of uncovering the Lebanese statues, the D.A.'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," the office said. 

As part of the agreement, Steinhardt will surrender a number of priceless artifacts, which he used to decorate his homes and offices and also lent to museums. These include the 400 B.C. Stag's Head Rhyton, a beautiful $3.5 million ceremonial vessel shaped into a stag's head that was looted from Milas, Turkey; three stone death masks dating to 6000 B.C.; a $1 million ornamental chest for human remains, called a larnax, taken from Crete that dates to between 1400 to 1200 B.C.; and the $1 million Ercolano Fresco, showing an infant Hercules strangling the snake that Hera sent to kill him, which was looted from Herculaneum, an ancient Roman town near Naples that was buried under ash and pumice by the A.D. 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

The Ercolano Fresco, looted from a Roman villa in Herculaneum, near Naples.

The Ercolano Fresco, looted from a Roman villa in Herculaneum, near Naples. (Image credit: New York District Attorneys Office)

"His [Steinhardt's] 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," Vance said in the statement, adding that the priceless relics would now be returned to their rightful owners.

In a statement, Steinhardt's lawyers said 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."

This is far from the first time that Steinhardt’s relic habit has landed him in trouble with the law. In 1997, a Federal judge ruled that a 4500 B.C. gold bowl — which Steinhardt had imported from Sicily for $1 million — had been acquired illegally and under false pretenses. In 2018, a raid by investigators on Steinhardt’s office and Manhattan home resulted in the seizure of several ancient artifacts that had been stolen from Greece and Italy.

And in 2019, The New York Times reported that several women who worked for non-profits he funded had accused Steinhardt of sexual harassment. Steinhardt denies the accusations.

Ben Turner
Staff Writer

Ben Turner is a U.K. based staff writer at Live Science. He covers physics and astronomy, among other topics like tech and climate change. He graduated from University College London with a degree in particle physics before training as a journalist. When he's not writing, Ben enjoys reading literature, playing the guitar and embarrassing himself with chess.