The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has repatriated nearly 40 objects worth $5 million from a cache of looted artifacts once owned by billionaire collector Michael Steinhardt to Israel.
The repatriation comes after Steinhardt “forfeited” 180 objects that were valued at $70 million last December, though not all of those objects have been recovered. He was subsequently banned from buying more artifacts—a rare embargo that is rarely placed on collectors of any kind.
“These rare and beautiful artifacts, which are thousands of years old, have been kept from the public because of illegal looting and trafficking,” Alvin L. Bragg, Jr., the Manhattan District Attorney, said in a statement. “My office is proud to once again return historic antiquities to where they rightfully belong.”
When that ban was placed on Steinhardt in December, his prominence within the art world had already begun to fade. In 2019, Steinhardt was accused of making comments of a sexual nature to women who worked at the nonprofits that he founded or supported. He denied the allegations at the time. The year before, New York authorities seized nine Greek and Roman artifacts from Steinhardt’s Manhattan home.
Prior to then, Steinhardt and his wife Judy had been viewed as forces within the New York art world. They have reportedly spent hundreds of millions of dollars on art, and they have previously loaned works from their collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a wing dedicated to Greek and Roman art bears their name. They ranked on the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list each year between 1999 and 2018.
Included among the 39 artifacts being repatriated are three death masks that the office said dated back to ca. 6000 to 7000 B.C.E. Purchased from the Israeli dealer Gil Chaya, they are together now worth $650,000, according to authorities.
Chaya, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office said, had helped Steinhardt buy a number of the objects that were returned to Israel. The office accused Chaya of having located the looted objects that Steinhardt purchased and of having once even “cleaned a dirty antiquity in a New York City hotel bathtub” before bringing it to the collector’s home.
Technically, not all of the 39 repatriated objects have been sent back to Israel yet.
Twenty-eight of them were officially returned on Tuesday, although eight have not yet been found and the remaining three were merely “transferred” to the country. Additionally, two more artifacts—a cosmetic spoon and an amulet resembling a sunfish—are expected to be returned to Palestinian authorities.