US billionaire returns $96 million worth of stolen antiquities

The move will allow 80-year-old Michael Steinhardt to avoid indictment and trial for the time being. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (AFP) - A prominent United States art collector and billionaire philanthropist has returned 180 works of art and antiquities stolen from around the world - some from ancient Greece - that are estimated to be worth US$70 million (96 million), Justice Department officials in New York said on Monday (Dec 6).

The move, announced by Manhattan attorney-general Cyrus Vance's office, allows 80-year-old Michael Steinhardt to avoid indictment and trial for the time being, but bans him for life from acquiring antiques on the legal art market.

The works of art include a Greek drinking vessel fashioned in the shape of a deer's head dating from 400 BC and worth US$3.5 million, and an ancient Greek larnax - a kind of funerary box - dating from between 1200 to 1400 BC and worth a million dollars.

"For decades, Michael Steinhardt displayed a rapacious appetite for plundered artefacts 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," Mr Vance said in a statement along with the announcement, which came after a years-long investigation.

Mr Vance said the New York financier, estimated by Forbes to be worth US$1.2 billion, "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".

The offices of Mr Steinhardt's hedge fund and his Fifth Avenue apartment have been raided in recent years by Mr Vance's investigators.

The district attorney has made it a priority to track stolen works - seizing some from museums, private collections or auction houses - and return them to their rightful owners, including in Lebanon, Pakistan and Italy.

Mr Steinhardt is a major donor to institutions such as New York University and the Metropolitan Museum, which named a gallery after him.

The artefacts he has returned are estimated to be worth a total of about US$70 million, the district attorney's office said.

Despite Mr Steinhardt's "decades-long indifference to the rights of peoples to their own sacred treasures", Mr Vance said he had no immediate plans to prosecute the billionaire.

"The interests of justice prior to indictment and trial favour a resolution that ensures that a substantial portion of the damage to world cultural heritage will be undone, once and for all," he said.

"This agreement guarantees that 180 pieces will be returned expeditiously to their rightful owners in 11 countries rather than be held as evidence for the years necessary to complete the grand-jury indictment, trial, potential conviction, and sentence," Mr Vance said.

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