Billionaire Michael Steinhardt Barred From Purchasing Antiquities After Spending Decades Collecting Looted Items

Published December 7, 2021
Updated October 27, 2023

Billionaire hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt received " a first-of-its-kind lifetime ban on acquiring antiquities" after a yearslong, multinational investigation found he'd purchased looted objects from 11 countries.

Michael Steinhardt

Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty ImagesMichael Steinhardt in 2017.

Some people collect antiques. But billionaire Michael Steinhardt spent decades purchasing looted and trafficked antiquities. Now, Steinhardt has been forced to surrender 180 stolen objects valued at $70 million and has agreed to never purchase antiquities again.

According to the Manhattan district attorney’s office — which conducted a four-year investigation into his purchases — Steinhardt spent years building a collection of looted artifacts from Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Turkey.

“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 Cyrus Vance Jr.

Noting that Steinhardt struck a deal with prosecutors that would ban him from buying antiquities in the future, Vance added:

“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.”

Stolen Objects

New York District Attorney’s OfficeA number of the stolen objects Michael Steinhardt has been ordered to return.

For his part, Steinhardt has pleaded ignorance. Through his lawyer, he professed satisfaction with the results of the Manhattan district attorney’s investigation and placed the blame squarely at the feet of artifact dealers.

“Mr. Steinhardt is pleased that the District Attorney’s yearslong investigation has concluded without any charges, and that items wrongfully taken by others will be returned to their native countries,” his lawyer, Andrew J. Levander, said in a statement.

He 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.”

Yet Steinhardt has a long record of collecting stolen objects — and tussling with law enforcement over them. In 1992, Steinhardt bought a golden bowl dating back to 450 B.C. from Italy. A judge later ruled that he’d illegally imported it and denied that Steinhardt was just an “innocent owner.”

Investigators also seized stolen objects from his home in 2017 and 2018, including a marble statue stolen from a warehouse during Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s.

“You see this piece?” Steinhardt allegedly said to an investigator in 2017, pointing to a small bowl. ” There’s no provenance for it. If I see a piece and I like it, then I buy it.”

The most recent seizure of stolen objects includes items like a ceremonial libations vessel stolen from Turkey (lent by Steinhardt to the Metropolitan Museum of Art), a fresco of Hercules from 50 B.C. stolen from Italy, and stone death masks dating to 6000 B.C. and looted from Israel. Many of the objects, prosecutors said, were stolen during moments of war or civil unrest.

“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.

“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.”

Golden Bowl From Iraq

New York District Attorney’s OfficeA golden bowl from Iraq which prosecutors say was illegally purchased for $150,000.

Steinhardt is, however, better known for his philanthropy than for owning stolen objects. The founder of the hedge fund Steinhardt Partners and co-founder of Birthright Israel, Steinhardt has spent his life supporting schools like New York University and museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art. NYU has a school that bears his name; the Met has a gallery.

But according to Vance, justice has finally been served. By striking a deal with Steinhardt — instead of pursuing charges — the stolen objects can quickly return home. Otherwise, he said, they might linger as evidence.

“Even though Steinhardt’s decades-long indifference to the rights of peoples to their own sacred treasures is appalling,” he said, “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.”

After reading about Michael Steinhardt’s lifetime ban on collecting antiquities, learn about the French treasure hunter called Patrice T who was busted with 27,000 looted artifacts. Or, see why this woman hoped to escape a curse by returning objects to Pompeii.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Erik Hawkins
Erik Hawkins studied English and film at Keene State College in NH and has taught English as a Second Language stateside and in South America. He has done award-winning work as a reporter and editor on crime, local government, and national politics for almost 10 years, and most recently produced true crime content for NBC's Oxygen network.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "Billionaire Michael Steinhardt Barred From Purchasing Antiquities After Spending Decades Collecting Looted Items.", December 7, 2021, Accessed June 23, 2024.