untangling the awkward relationship between art and money

Antiquities collecting… a risky business

Huge news from New York yesterday.

If you’ve ever paid a visit to the Met, and wandered into the corner that houses treasures from Ancient Greece, you might have noticed a name on one of the galleries.

Michael Steinhardt. Philanthropist. Benefactor. Custodian of one of the biggest private ancient art collections in the world. So, yeah. The kind of donor museums dream about.

He’s a man who loves risk. It’s in his blood. He spent his childhood in Brooklyn, where Steinhardt senior was a compulsive gambler, and fenced jewellery to Meyer Lansky – the man known as the ‘mob’s accountant.’ Michael also grew up with a taste for gambling – but strictly in the Wall Street sense. He made his billions as a hedge-fund manager.

And in a 2006 interview with Forbes magazine, Steinhardt declares that there is money to be made in antiquities.

“Ancient art has not appreciated much in value for a long time,” he said. “It has been under a certain cloud because there are issues of provenance, which have made headlines in the last five- to 10-years and continue to make headlines.”

The man knew what he was talking about. He’d been burnt by those same “issues of provenance” – and attracted his own headlines. In 1995, U.S. Customs Agents seized an exquisite $1.2 million Hellenistic Greek (c. 323-146 B.C.) golden libation bowl from his Fifth Avenue home. He fought it all the way to the Supreme Court, and later told journalists that he spent more in lawyers’ fees than he did on the looted bowl.

Speaking with Bloomberg in 2005 (here syndicated in AFR), he admitted that it “should have turned me off antiquities, but it’s like an addiction.”

Today, he’ll be wishing he’d just gone cold turkey…

Because Deputy D.A. Matthew Bogdanos of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Antiquities Trafficking Office has had him in his sights for quite a while. And after a string of raids on his apartment and office and an unprecedented international multi-national investigation, yesterday it was announced that Steinhardt has handed over 180 stolen antiquities with a combined value of $70 million. They’ll all be returned to their countries of origin.

The sucker punch? Steinhardt has agreed to a lifetime ban on acquiring antiquities. It’s completely unprecedented; and massive news for those who’ve dedicated their lives to the fight against looting.

D.A. Cyrus Vance didn’t pull any punches. And when you read what Vance had to say about Steinhardt, it’s not difficult to understand why law enforcement was gunning for him.

“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,” he said.

“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.”

Sure enough, the details of the seizure read like a ‘who’s who’ of the illicit trade in antiquities.

It’s great to see the good guys get some runs on the board. They’re fighting against some very rich, very powerful, and very influential people.

Could this be the start of something big?

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