Donate to RNS

Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt surrenders 180 stolen antiquities

In return, Steinhardt, co-founder of Birthright Israel, an organization that sends young Jews on free trips to Israel, will not face criminal charges for illegally smuggling the items.

Michael Steinhardt in New York on May 5, 2016. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

(RNS) — Michael Steinhardt, a billionaire philanthropist for Jewish causes, has agreed to surrender stolen antiquities valued at $70 million and to never again acquire antiquities, according to an agreement filed Monday (Dec. 6) in Manhattan Supreme Court.

In return, Steinhardt, co-founder of Birthright Israel, an organization that sends young Jews on free trips to Israel, will not face criminal charges for illegally smuggling the items.

Those were the terms of the agreement after a four-year grand jury probe of Steinhardt, who supports a wide range of Jewish institutions as part of his Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. issued a statement announcing the probe’s resolution:

“For decades, Michael Steinhardt displayed a rapacious appetite for plundered artifacts 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,” Vance said in a news release. “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.”

Steinhardt, 81, is not the only billionaire to have faced scrutiny over antiquities trafficking. So too has Steve Green, the evangelical founder of the craft store chain Hobby Lobby, who amassed 40,000 artifacts from the Middle East for the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. Green helped launch the museum and is a major benefactor.

In 2017, Hobby Lobby paid $3 million and forfeited more than 140 ancient artifacts as part of a U.S. Justice Department probe. Last year, the museum sent more than 13,000 artifacts back to Iraq and Egypt after determining their provenance was questionable.


RELATED: Experts say Hobby Lobby must have known it was illegally importing artifacts


Among the 180 items Steinhardt illegally purchased, according to the DA: a stag’s head in the form of a ceremonial vessel for libations from Turkey; a small chest for human remains from the Greek island of Crete; a golden bowl looted from Nimrud, Iraq; and three death masks from the Judean mountains.

The probe into the looted items began in 2017 after Steinhardt, who made his money as a hedge fund manager, loaned a statue of a Lebanese bull’s head to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That statue, which investigators concluded, was illegally taken from Lebanon is now valued at $10 million, according to the agreement. In 2018, investigators raided Steinhardt’s office and Manhattan home, carrying off several ancient works looted from Greece and Italy.

The artifacts will be repatriated to their countries of origin.

This is not the first time Steinhardt has faced accusations of wrongdoing. In 2019, he was accused by seven women of sexual harassment — specifically, of making sexually inappropriate remarks to women who approached him as part of their work in Jewish philanthropy or the arts.

“Steinhardt asked them to have sex with him, or made sexual requests of them, while they were relying on or seeking his support,” according to a New York Times/ProPublica report.

Steinhardt has funded some of the most prestigious Jewish nonprofits. He and Charles Bronfman, a billionaire heir to the Seagram liquor fortune, co-founded Birthright Israel, which has sent more than 700,000 young Jews on free trips to Israel. Steinhardt also financed a network of Hebrew charter schools and a natural history museum in Tel Aviv that bears his name.

A gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is named for him and he has given millions to New York University, which named its Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development after him.

Steinhardt said in a prepared statement issued by his attorneys that he was “pleased that the District Attorney’s years-long investigation has concluded without any charges, and that items wrongfully taken by others will be returned to their native countries,” The Associated Press reported.