We’ve all heard tales of stolen treasure growing up; stories of chests of gold and silver buried in remote islands. But US billionaire Michael Steinhardt found his loot in a much more modern way – paying traffickers money for valuable artefacts that had been stolen from collections around the world.
The hedge-fund manager’s ‘rapacious appetite’ for valuable items led him to acquire a $70 million collection of antiques from 11 different countries.
Steinhardt chose to surrender the loot as part of a legal agreement with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office this month, which also saw him handed a lifetime ban from buying valuable items in the future.
Investigation and legal charges
The court decision was the result of a four-year-long investigation into Steinhardt’s collection. Investigators had built an international taskforce including 11 law authorities in the Middle East and Europe and issued 17 search warrants as they probed into the billionaire’s dealings. It included over 170 items within its scope and uncovered a remarkable collection of stolen goods.
Despite the evidence put before the court that suggested that Steinhard had ‘no moral boundaries’, according to the prosecutor in the trial, the collector denied any criminal wrongdoing. He chose instead to focus on the actions of others; the traffickers, money launderers and even tomb raiders involved in acquiring the items.
However, the lifetime ban is likely to be the strongest punishment for Steinhardt. He appears to have avoided a grand-jury indictment, with the items being returned to their original owners instead of being held as evidence against him.
The most valuable items
$70 million can buy you a lot of treasure, and some of Steinhardt’s collection consisted of some remarkable items. Central to it was The Stag’s Head Rhyton; a 2,400-year-old drinking vessel which the collector had loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1993. The ancient item, stolen during looting in Turkey, is thought to be worth $3.5 million – enough to fund a lottery jackpot, but it’s thought the billionaire acquired the piece at a much lower price.
Another highlight is a $1 million-valued Ercolano Fresco that disappeared from a Roman villa in the Herculaneum ruins, near Naples, in 1995. The piece was purchased from traffickers for $650,000 shortly after, raising interest through its unique depiction of an infant Hercules wrestling with a snake sent by the goddess Hera to kill him.
Professor Christos Tsirogiannis was the first person to notify the DA’s office in New York after identifying a rare Sardinian idol back in 2014 – he traced the piece back to convicted antiques dealer Giacomo Medici in Italy. It was the first step towards an official investigation, which started in raids on Steinhardt’s and culminated in the recent trial.
The standard of the collection overall is very high, according to the professor. Dozens of the artefacts attracted a ‘most reputable’ status from top auction houses around the world, and explain how Steinhard managed to amass a valuation of over $70 million.
Other examples of stolen artwork
Art theft, also known as art napping, has happened as long as humans have been making art. While collections like Steinhardt’s are usually recovered eventually, there are thousands of valuable pieces that are still missing today with criminals carrying out some remarkable heists.
Perhaps the most valuable collection are the 13 pieces were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, USA, in 1990. The haul is worth $500 million and includes The Concert, a Vermeer masterpiece valued at up to $200m and thought to be the most valuable missing art piece in the world, as well as pieces from Rembrandt, Degas and Manet. The FBI believes an organized crime syndicate were behind the heist but have yet to solve the case. In 2020, curator Ronni Baer said, “I wish I could somehow comfort myself in knowing they’re somewhere, but I don’t know if they still exist.”
Other notable missing masterpieces include Van Gogh’s Poppy Flowers, stolen in 2010 and valued at $50 million, and Picasso’s Le Pigeon aux Petits Pois, worth twice as much as that.
Whether these pieces of art will ever be found is unclear, but the convictions for the criminals involved are likely to be much more severe than the punishment Steinhardt received.