The story of how New York magnate Michael Steinhardt forged his art collection would make for quite a few mystery novels, with plots as dark and perverse as they are cosmopolitan. A mix of Agatha Christie, Inspector Poirot and lousy baddies from the show James Bond, for example. Because the cast of secondary characters is tall: antiquities dealers, local and international mafia bosses, money laundering networks and grave robbers contributed to the investor hoarding since 1987 a collection valued at 200 million dollars, with thousands of pieces from deposits in a dozen countries. Until the Manhattan prosecutor, Cyrus Vance, in one of his last sentences before retiring, this week ordered the financier to return 180 stolen pieces, valued at 70 million dollars, to the places from where they were taken by friends of others , in this case of foreign capital.
In addition to returning what was stolen, the prosecution has imposed a ban on Steinhardt from collecting any more relics in the remainder of his life (he has just turned 81). In addition to the first sentence of this kind, in perpetuity, the veto was also a condition sine qua non not to press charges against the billionaire, pioneer of investment funds and great benefactor of the University of New York, Jewish entities of the Big Apple and the Brooklyn Museum and Botanical Garden, who have named each wing after him. But philanthropy as a letter of marque has its days numbered: day after day the names of donors who financed, with dark money, culture or science in the US are crossed out. The latest example is the withdrawal of the last name Sackler, linked Forever to the Opioid Crisis, Seven-room Metropolitan Museum of New York (Met).
After four years of multinational research, at the hands of a unit created to this, the Manhattan prosecution considers it proven that Steinhardt developed over decades “a voracious appetite for looted objects” thanks to “an unfathomable underworld of antiquities dealers, organized crime bosses, money launderers and grave robbers.” Specifically, twelve organized crime networks that stole the objects in 11 countries and placed the merchandise on the international market without supporting documents. The agreement aims to avoid a lengthy litigation that would have delayed the return of the works of art.
Among the antiquities to be repatriated, there are, for example, fragments of the frescoes from Herculaneum. Or a marvelous Minoan sarcophagus stolen in Crete and valued at a million dollars, which will be able to rest definitively in one of the splendid archaeological museums of the island. Or the beautiful rhyton (ceremonial glass for libations) in the shape of a deer head, from 400 BC and with a value of 3.5 million dollars, which will return to Turkey. Purchased illegally in 1991, Steinhardt’s generosity – or rather his boastfulness – prompted him to lend it to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where it was displayed until the US Attorney’s Office received authorization to seize it. It was not the first time that his name appeared linked to stolen pieces: already in the nineties a gold cup from 400 BC irregularly imported from Italy was seized from him. Steinhardt, shrugging, then shielded himself from the blushing innocence of any victim of deception.
The investigation into Steinhardt’s greed began in 2017, when his exhibitionism exposed him by lending, also to the Met, a precious marble bull’s head that had been stolen during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). Researchers began to pull the thread and discovered funds that many museums in the world would already want for themselves. Piece after piece, like a tangled handful of cherries, the findings showed the global dimension of looting and how greasy the illegal antiquities trade is, something that countries face with different fates: while Bulgaria, among other countries from the East, it is a mine for looters, the reinforcement of the legislation in countries like Italy or Greece has made trafficking practically impossible. The ravages of cultural heritage from wars have proven to be another excellent nursery for relics, as the painful looting of the Baghdad National Museum in the aftermath of the 2003 war recalls.
At the beginning of August, the US precisely returned to Iraq some 17,000 pieces, some of them 4,000 years old, illegally taken from the country by traffickers in the two decades that have followed the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime. Many of them wore in museums and private collections in the United States, from where they were confiscated by the authorities. For the Baghdad government, it is “the greatest restitution in Iraqi history”, the result of collaboration between the two countries. A good part of the relics will be exhibited in the National Museum, the same one that a few days after the US invasion woke up one morning with huge gaps in its walls, where thieves had entered. Despite the colossal deployment of US soldiers throughout the city after the invasion, it was surprising that none were guarding the national treasure in those days. It surprised a lot, or not so much, or maybe very little.
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So when it is not the barbarians (the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in 2001 is just one example), it is the greed and the facilities of the market – including the diligent looters. on commission– Those that endanger the artistic heritage, despite UN resolutions to preserve this legacy as far as possible, or the finding that this illicit traffic sometimes serves to finance terrorist groups such as the Islamic State. Furthermore, apart from an act of justice, the return of Steinhardt’s 180 pieces does not escape the international current of restitution of works of art that hang in many museums around the world, after having been plundered by colonization or, as in the case of the Parthenon marbles, for the theft.
In a statement published on Monday, Steinhardt’s lawyer said that the magnate is delighted to be able to return works “wrongly acquired” and that he reserves the right to request “compensation from intermediaries” – the stormy world of camels, or dealers, artistic-, underlining that many of them assured him that they had obtained the pieces legally. In total, the works of art trafficking unit created to follow in the footsteps of its collection has recovered more than 3,000 objects in these four years, half of which have already been returned to their countries of origin; a thousand more are pending legal proceedings. In the sentence that prohibits the offender from hoarding one more piece, published Monday by the Manhattan prosecutor’s office with such a detailed list of objects that it looks more like a museum catalog than a court ruling, veteran prosecutor Vance also ugly in moral terms Steinhardt’s behavior: for decades, the text emphasizes, he was not only an avid unscrupulous predator, he also caused “serious cultural damage to the world.” Poetic justice. And artistic.
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