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Tide Turns On Flood Of “Conflict Antiquities” — Buyers Should Brace For A Ride

April 12, 2018

On the coldest day of the winter, January 2018, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos and his team of investigators bundled up to raid the home and office of one of New York’s wealthiest businessmen — renowned hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt. Their goal: seize a million dollars worth of allegedly looted ancient art from Greece and Italy.

Then, two weeks later, Bogdanos struck again, serving additional warrants against Steinhardt and Christie’s Auction House, and seizing another $2 million in Classical masterpieces.

These recent raids were not the first time that Mr. Steinhardt has been implicated in a criminal investigation. In February 2018, District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. repatriated two masterpieces to Beirut, which had been plundered by armed forces during Lebanon’s civil war, only to end up in Steinhardt’s hands. They are “conflict antiquities” in every sense of the name.

To some collectors of ancient art, such seizures are simply the cost of doing business. Another example in the world of high net worth individuals used to having what they want, when they want it, and at any cost.  Historically, the risk for Mr. Steinhardt and his cohorts has been low, and the rewards high, for owning and showcasing ancient antiquities that might have been illicitly obtained.

Apartments across the Upper East Side of Manhattan house millions of dollars of these artifacts — secured at auction, purchased from resplendent galleries, or acquired during international travel —  with no questions asked despite questionable provenance or history. Many come from warzones past and present or terrorist hotspots: Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, Cyprus, Cambodia, the list goes on. No doubt some collectors acquired possible conflict antiquities in good faith — although that defense grows more difficult to believe with every ISIS headline — but others simply made a cost-benefit analysis and found the benefits overwhelmingly outweighed the costs.

Historically, the U.S. government’s position on illicit antiquities has been to “seize and return.” Whether the illegal antiquities were confiscated at the U.S. border or inside our borders, the federal government would often simply seize the artifacts and work with the host country to facilitate their return. Few, if any, of those in possession of the artifacts were prosecuted.

Take, for example, what happened with Hobby Lobby. Last summer, the Green Family, owners of the arts and crafts store, were forced to forfeit $3 million and more than 5,000 antiquities from Iraq that were smuggled into the United States—massively undervalued, falsely invoiced, and labeled with false countries of origin. In court filings related to the case, prosecutors alleged numerous instances of criminal activity,  uncovered after a six and a half year federal investigation. Yet no criminal charges were ever filed. Their actions even prompted Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro to say, “”Extraordinary. Hobby Lobby’s president illegally smuggled 144 artifacts into the U.S. and yet no hint of criminal prosecution.”

Until just recently, some in the legal system believed that the costs of prosecution were too high to pursue the scofflaws. This attitude led buyers of conflict antiquities to believe they faced little threat for making their illegal purchases.  At most, their item would be seized; at least, no one would care.

The tide is now turning as we see this equation upset by a new targeted task force.

In response to concerns of the growing illicit trade, early this year, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office announced that it is establishing an Antiquities Trafficking Unit, that “formalizes the collaborative processes and partnerships that led to these successful recoveries,” referencing the DA’s seizure of more $150 million in illicit antiquities. The new unit is headed by Bogdanos, who has a long history of pursuing stolen treasures:, in addition to being an Assistant District Attorney,  as a Marine Colonel, he led the U.S. government’s efforts to recover priceless antiquities stolen from the Iraqi National Museum in 2003.  

We applaud District Attorney Vance’s vision in creating this new unit.  New York is the largest art market in the United States, so it makes sense for this unit to be established in the city.  That said, collectors are not limited to one city or state. Therefore, to really address the growing challenge of the illicit trade, other major art centers should follow suit.  Dedicating just one attorney in each of these major art centers—Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami and Washington, DC, as a start—to work with law enforcement and the art world to ensure that the U.S. market is not financing crime, conflict, or terrorism.

Deborah Lehr is the Founder and Chairman of the Antiquities Coalition, a not for profit dedicated to fighting against the illicit trade in antiquities.