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New York billionaire Michael Steinhardt surrenders $70 million of stolen ancient art

Jack Guy, CNN

US billionaire Michael Steinhardt has surrendered 180 stolen relics worth an estimated $70 million and agreed to an “unprecedented” lifetime ban on acquiring antiquities, officials in Manhattan have said.

Investigators found that Steinhardt, one of the world’s largest ancient art collectors, was in possession of looted artifacts smuggled out of 11 countries by 12 criminal networks, according to a statement from the Manhattan District Attorney’s (DA) office on Monday.

“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 Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr. in the statement.

“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.”

Steinhardt’s lawyers, Andrew J. Levander and Theodore V. Wells Jr, said in a statement to CNN Tuesday that their client was pleased the DA’s investigation had concluded without any charges “and that items wrongfully taken by others will be returned to their native countries.”

Steinhardt agreed to the return all 180 seized artifacts to their rightful owners, according to Vance, who said this was a quicker resolution than going to trial.

“Finally, this agreement establishes that Steinhardt will be subject to an unprecedented lifetime ban on acquiring antiquities,” said Vance.

The statement from the DA’s office says the investigation started in February 2017. Authorities began looking into a Bull’s Head statue stolen from Lebanon during the country’s civil war, determining that Steinhardt had other looted artifacts at his apartment and office, according to prosecutors.

The investigation was then expanded to cover his “acquisition, possession and sale of more than 1,000 antiquities since at least 1987,” according to the statement, and involved cooperation with authorities in Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Turkey.

“Steinhardt viewed these precious artifacts as simple commodities — things to collect and own,” said Homeland Security Investigations New York Acting Special Agent in Charge Ricky J. Patel in the statement.

“He failed to respect that these treasures represent the heritage of cultures around the world from which these items were looted, often during times of strife and unrest,” Patel said.

A statement from Steinhardt’s legal representatives added: “Many of the dealers from whom Mr. Steinhardt bought these items made specific representations as to the dealers’ lawful title to the items, and to their alleged provenance. To the extent these representations were false, Mr. Steinhardt has reserved his rights to seek recompense from the dealers involved.”

Items seized include the Stag’s Head Rhyton, a ceremonial vessel depicting a stag’s head which dates to 400 BCE. It came to market after looting in Milas, Turkey, and is valued at $3.5 million today, according to the DA’s statement.

Another is the Larnax, a chest from Crete, Greece, used to hold human remains. It dates from 1400-1200 BCE and is valued at $1 million, said the Manhattan DA’s office.

As part of its wider responsibilities to date, the Manhattan DA’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit has recovered several thousand artifacts valued at more than $200 million, according to the statement. More than 1,500 of the seized artifacts have been returned to their rightful owners, and hundreds more are waiting to be repatriated.

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