US billionaire ordered to return looted antiquities worth $70 million (£53 million)

US billionaire Michael Steinhardt has surrendered his collection of antiquities worth US$70 million (£53 million), after a lengthy investigation found they had been looted or illegally smuggled into the country.

Following a dramatic inquiry that began in 2017, investigators discovered “compelling evidence” that a staggering 180 treasures from Steinhardt’s collection were trafficked from eleven countries. Items originating from Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Turkey all lacked verifiable provenance.

Amongst the plethora of items seized was a 3000-year-old Cretan chest for human remains known as a Larnax and an Ercolano fresco, which depicts the infant Hercules strangling a snake. Perhaps the most spectacular find is the stag’s head rhyton, a silver-gilt ceremonial drinking vessel dating from 400BC. It is believed the rhyton was looted from Milas, Turkey, and is now valued at US$3.5 million (£2.6 million).

On Monday, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr said “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.

He 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.”

To resolve the case, Steinhardt will return all the looted objects to their rightful owners. They will not be held as evidence for the years necessary to complete a grand-jury indictment and trial.

Despite the findings of the investigation, the hedge-fund pioneer has denied any criminal wrongdoing. His lawyers announced that Steinhardt was pleased the “items wrongfully taken by others will be returned to their native countries.” Steinhardt is said to be seeking compensation from the dealers he claims allegedly mislead him regarding the provenance of the artefacts.

For the first time, the court has also handed Steinhardt an unprecedented lifetime ban from buying antiquities. Steinhardt made his fortune as a hedge fund manager, later becoming a renowned philanthropist and, formerly, one of the world’s largest collectors of ancient artwork.

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