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Art’s worst offenders are experiencing a just and overdue reckoning

This past month, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office struck another blow against bad actors who exploit the American art market. Their latest success highlights a continuing weakness in the multibillion-dollar industry: self-regulation and voluntary policing haven’t worked. Nor have bad publicity and civil fines. Criminal investigations and legal consequences are needed to halt the trade in illicit antiquities.

On Dec. 6, following a three-year grand jury investigation, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr. announced the seizure of $70 million worth of looted antiquities from Michael H. Steinhardt. The hedge fund titan escaped charges but received a life sentence in other ways. To avoid prosecution, Steinhardt agreed to a permanent ban on collecting ancient art, the first of its kind.  

This unprecedented step, described as “a deferred prosecution agreement,” may be more effective than a conviction. It should forever remove a major buyer of illicit antiquities from the market. This is no small thing as, since the 1990s, repeated litigation and scandals have been unable to curb what Vance described as the billionaire’s “rapacious appetite for plundered artifacts.”

This news came closely on the heels of other major criminal cases. First, in September, art dealer Nancy Wiener pleaded guilty to three felony charges for trafficking millions of dollars worth of antiquities. Then, in October, “adventurer scholar” Douglas Latchford made front-page headlines on several continents for his own prolific smuggling career. While Latchford died fighting extradition to the United States in 2020, the Pandora Papers opened the box of his crimes, illustrating how he hid millions of dollars from decades of looting through the misuse of tax havens, trusts and offshore accounts. The federal government has made clear their investigation into him and his associates is “ongoing.” 

Latchford, Wiener and Steinhardt’s unmasking serves as a reminder that the $50.1 billion art market remains the largest unregulated industry in the world. After all, these weren’t back-alley peddlers, they were perched atop the pinnacle of the cultural scene. Steinhardt (still) has a gallery named after him at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Wiener, and her mother before her, boasted clients such as Jacqueline Kennedy, John D. Rockefeller III and Igor Stravinsky. Sir Latchford, pre-indictment, was feted by royalty in Europe and Asia. 

Yet all three didn’t just make some regrettable purchases. They knowingly, willingly and tangibly linked themselves to some of the worst conflicts and humanitarian tragedies of the last half-century — from Cambodia’s Killing Fields and Pakistan’s Swat Valley to war-torn Lebanon, Iraq and other global hotspots where armed insurgents and violent extremists are known to profit from the illicit trade. Relying on forged papers and their then-sterling reputations, they successfully laundered countless “blood antiquities” and other stolen property onto the legitimate market. Their names frequently sounded out from the auction blocks at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. And they either sold or donated works to the foremost museums around the world, including the Met, the British Museum, and the National Gallery of Australia.  

Though some of these institutions may have been genuinely defrauded, most should have known better. These are art world leaders with entire departments of lawyers and scholars to ensure their acquisitions are legal and ethical. But despite their degrees and other resources, despite red flag after red flag, they continued accepting pieces, few (if any) questions asked. 

Such willful blindness has allowed cultural racketeering to become a major global crime. It is difficult to quantify the harm, but Steinhardt alone is known to have purchased more than 1000 antiquities, today estimated at $400 million. In a related case, authorities recovered over $143 million in looted antiquities just from the Manhattan properties of art dealer Subhash Kapoor alone. This is in addition to another $50 million in illicit artifacts seized from others in New York since 2017.  

Compare this to bank robbery — in the entire United States, thieves only made off with approximately $30 million each year, as of 2015. Those caught are severely prosecuted with high conviction rates. However, for art and antiquities, criminal cases against even prolific offenders like Steinhardt, Wiener, Latchford and Kapoor are by far the exception, not the rule.  

In what industry, other than art, can you hunt out stolen property worth hundreds of millions of dollars, or even directly arrange for its theft, and then expect praise not prosecution if you give it back? Looting is a crime. Trafficking is a crime. Possession of stolen property is a crime. If you commit or facilitate any of these offenses, you should be held accountable. You deserve not only to lose the public’s trust but to become the focus of our justice system.  

Recent revelations have given the art market and museums an unprecedented opportunity to step up, right past wrongs, and be part of the solution, not the problem. Thus far, most have failed to take it. Hopefully, in turn, the United States and other governments have taken note — the only way to fight cultural racketeering going forward is to treat cultural racketeers as the criminals they are.  

Deborah Lehr is chairman and co-founder of the Antiquities Coalition and CEO of Edelman Global Advisory.

Tags Archaeological artifacts Humanities looting

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