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Avoiding trial, a former hedge fund manager turns over $70 million in stolen antiques

A ceremonial cup from Turkey in the shape of a stag's head. Three death masks, likely unearthed from the mountains of Israel, dating back to 6000 or 7000 B.C. An ancient Greek chest for human remains.

Those are among the 180 stolen antiquities that former hedge fund manager and philanthropist Michael Steinhardt turned over under an agreement with New York City prosecutors. The deal, reached after a multiyear investigation into his activities, also slaps Steinhardt with a lifetime ban on collecting any other historical relics.

In exchange, Steinhardt will avoid prosecution for what authorities have called his "rapacious appetite for plundered artifacts" that crossed legal lines.

"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," Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. said in a statement on Monday.

Steinhardt, who is also known for his work as a co-founder of Birthright Israel, which pays for young Jewish adults to visit Israel, has denied any wrongdoing in acquiring the antiques. He said many of the dealers who sold him items claimed that they were the objects' lawful owners. "Mr. Steinhardt is 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," read a statement from his attorneys provided to NPR.

Authorities say they'll return the 180 antiques, valued at around $70 million, to their "rightful owners" in the 11 countries where they originated.

Vance said the decision not to prosecute Steinhardt meant that the relics could be returned more quickly and that witnesses and other parallel investigations would remain secret.

The investigation into Steinhardt, who is also known for his work as a co-founder of Birthright Israel, which pays for young Jewish adults to visit Israel, began in 2017. It revealed that he had purchased some items from known antiquities traffickers without any information about their provenance. At least 100 of the pieces Steinhardt has agreed to turn over appeared covered in dirt before he bought them, which authorities said was a sign of looting.

During one exchange with investigators over a subpoena related to a different antique, Steinhardt reportedly pointed to the Larnax — the Greek chest he agreed to forfeit — and said: "You see this piece? There's no provenance for it. If I see a piece and I like it, then I buy it."

A version of this story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Hernandez
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