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Ancient artifacts seized from US billionaire among 142 looted items returned to Italy

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

New York officials have returned stolen antiquities worth nearly $14 million to Italy, including dozens of artifacts seized from US billionaire Michael Steinhardt.

Over a third of the 142 items handed back at a ceremony Wednesday had previously belonged to the former hedge fund manager, who was once among the world’s most prominent collectors of ancient art, according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.

Among the repatriated artifacts was a 2,000-year-old fresco depicting a young Hercules strangling a snake. Worth an estimated $1 million, it was looted from an archaeological site near Italy’s Mount Vesuvius in 1995.

Later that year, Steinhardt purchased the work without seeing evidence of its ownership history, according to investigators. A further 47 objects from his collection were among the returned items.

In a statement, Italy’s consul general in New York, Fabrizio Di Michele, said the restitution was “very important for our country.”

The “Ercolano Fresco,” dating back to 50 C.E., was among the items repatriated. Credit: Manhattan District Attorney

The announcement follows a years-long investigation into Steinhardt, who avoided charges after he surrendered 180 artifacts, worth an estimated $70 million, and agreed to what officials called an “unprecedented” lifetime ban on acquiring antiquities.

In recent months, objects from his collection — ranging from statues and sculptures, to gold masks, bowls and ceremonial vessels — have been returned countries including Iraq, Israel and Turkey.

Among them was a $1.2 million marble statue of a veiled woman’s head, which was repatriated to Libya in January. A helmet thought to have belonged to Alexander the Great’s father, Philip of Macedon, was meanwhile handed back to Bulgaria. In February, 47 items from Steinhardt’s collection were returned to Greece, including a rare statue valued at $14 million.

The investigation looked at more than 1,000 antiquities linked to Steinhardt since at least 1987. Authorities found that he had possessed looted artifacts that had been smuggled out of 11 countries by 12 criminal networks.

Upon the investigation’s conclusion in December, Manhattan’s then-District Attorney, Cy Vance, Jr., said that Steinhardt had “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.”

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In a statement provided to CNN at the time, Steinhardt’s lawyers, Andrew J. Levander and Theodore V. Wells Jr., said that their client was pleased that the investigation had concluded without any charges “and that items wrongfully taken by others will be returned to their native countries.”

They maintained that “many” of the dealers Steinhardt bought stolen artifacts from had “made specific representations as to the dealers’ lawful title to the items, and to their alleged provenance,” adding: “To the extent these representations were false, Mr. Steinhardt has reserved his rights to seek recompense from the dealers involved.”

Of the other 94 items returned to Italy Wednesday, 60 had been recovered from Royal-Athena Galleries, a now-defunct New York gallery founded by late antiquities dealer and forgery expert Jerome M. Eisenberg. The District Attorney’s office did not suggest any wrongdoing on the part of Eisenberg or Royal-Athena Galleries, which it thanked for “assistance and cooperation” in the investigation.

The other 34 objects were related to “other ongoing investigations.”


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