A clean break in the neck was one red flag, a sign that the artifact—a marble head of a woman believed to have come from a Libyan burial ground dating back to 350 BCE—had passed through the hands of looters and smugglers on its way to the vast art collection of Michael Steinhardt, the noted New York hedge funder and prolific antiquities collector. The marble head was just one of 180 objects Steinhardt surrendered to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office last year. Estimates value the objects at $70 million.
It was not Steinhardt’s first brush with the authorities in connection with his antiquities collecting. As far back as the 1990s, Steinhardt found himself in legal hot water, arguing before a federal judge in 1997 that he was an “innocent owner” of a golden bowl, purchased for $1 million and imported from Italy in 1992. The judge didn’t agree and ordered him to return it. Then, in 2017 and 2018, authorities seized numerous ancient works from Greece, Italy, and Lebanon from Steinhardt, effectively launching a yearslong investigation spanning 11 countries. By the time it was completed last December, Steinhardt had surrendered the objects and agreed, in the words of District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., to “an unprecedented lifetime ban on acquiring antiquities.” (He was never charged with a crime in relation to the investigation.)
The settlement deal saw Steinhardt, a revered philanthropist in the educational and religious spheres who spent 20 years on the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list, admit to buying more than a hundred objects believed to have been stolen over the course of his decades-long collecting career. What remains hazy is whether that behavior extended beyond the norm into malfeasant actions, or the 81-year-old retired financier was simply the subject of shifting mores in the cultural sphere.
Born in Brooklyn in 1940, Steinhardt grew up working class. His mother was a bookkeeper, and his father—whom Steinhardt didn’t acknowledge until 2001—was an avid gambler once convicted of a felony involving buying and selling stolen jewelry. His father funded Steinhardt’s education at the University of Pennsylvania from prison, and later, according to Steinhardt’s 2001 autobiography, No Bull, gave his son envelopes containing $10,000 in cash to invest in the stock market. In 1967, after working in mutual funds and a brokerage, Steinhardt teamed up with two more-established peers to start his namesake financial firm, which heralded the modern hedge fund. With its success he became a billionaire.
“I made so much money relative to anything I was used to,” Steinhardt said in 2016. That shift during his early career was, in his words, “a little bit confusing.”
As Steinhardt’s wealth grew, he began to struggle with moral questions and guilt about his atheism, he has said. He turned toward philanthropy, directing his efforts and considerable resources primarily toward Israel and Jewish nonprofits, which he funded through two private family foundations. In 1999 Steinhardt and billionaire Charles Bronfman founded Birthright Israel, a program that sponsors young Jews on free trips to Israel. He became well known as a political donor too, heading up the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization that bolstered the Clintons during their rise, while embracing ideas he once described as “on the right wing of the Democratic party.” He has since funded both conservative and liberal groups aligned with his causes. And Steinhardt has embraced supporting cultural efforts: New York University’s largest graduate school, a conservatory at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, a gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a natural history museum in Tel Aviv all bear his name. Public filings show that, since 2003, he has distributed more than $127 million through his foundations.
Lila Corwin Berman, a professor of American Jewish history at Temple University, counts Steinhardt among the key figures to emerge from a shift in Jewish philanthropy in the ’80s and ’90s. At the time, loosened financial regulations helped create a new class of singularly powerful donors, in contrast to the community-based charities that previously dominated the space. Running alongside the trend was an increasing emphasis on Jewish identity and “continuity,” which promoted nuclear family and in-marriage. These visions of a communal future drove the bulk of Steinhardt’s funding efforts in subsequent decades.
But it was in the late ’80s, the DA’s office found, that Steinhardt began another fixation—collecting antiquities. He bought and sold more than 1,000 objects totaling over $200 million in value at purchase, and at least doubling in value since. The late dealer Richard Feigen, himself known for his eagle eye for Old Master paintings, once described Steinhardt as “one of the two greatest collectors of Greek antiquities in the country.” His ventures led Steinhardt to forge some important ties in the museum world, alongside his philanthropy. By 1999, the American Friends of the Israel Museum, an affiliate organization to the Jerusalem museum, described Steinhardt’s family as “a mainstay” of the institution; the financier still serves as a board member. (A representative for AFIM declined to comment for this story.) In the early 2000s Steinhardt helped fund a renovation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Philippe de Montebello, then Met Museum director and a self-described member of the museum world’s “old guard,” advocated for the acquisition of antiquities amid calls for museums to focus more heavily on contemporary issues.
Steinhardt leveraged his collection—one rife with a penchant for the Old World—in public and in private. In 2001 he transferred the loan of Rembrandt’s St. Peter in Prison (The Apostle Peter Kneeling), a 1631 biblical scene depicting a jailed Peter in Jerusalem, from the Met, where it had been for several years, to the Israel Museum; he wanted to help the institution, then ailing amid political unrest, attract visitors with an Old Master painting. More than a decade later, Steinhardt lent the same museum a group of ten 9,000-year-old Neolithic death masks. Some of those artifacts were shown in the DA’s investigation to have been looted from Israel before a disgraced dealer sold them, still covered in dirt, to Steinhardt.
An example of his private leveraging involves a loan related to a real estate purchase: in 2011 Steinhardt and his wife, Judy, used 20 works as collateral for a loan from JPMorgan. Public documents filed as part of the maneuver give a narrow glimpse into the couple’s tastes. Murky depictions of nudes and beds by Lucian Freud and Pablo Picasso, alongside others by Honoré Daumier, Jasper Johns, Piet Mondrian, Otto Dix, Paul Klee, and Egon Schiele, had passed through their hands.
When Steinhardt first began collecting, the standards around provenance—the official record of an artwork’s ownership—were far more lax, and calls for repatriation of looted objects were just beginning. This professional laxity allowed now-disgraced dealers like Robert Hecht and Robin Symes to do business with little fear of immediate legal consequence. The market has caught up.
“I don’t think this is odd for anyone who was collecting antiquities at the time he was,” attorney Michael McCullough, who specializes in art law, told ARTnews about the investigation’s findings. “Most of these are historical purchases.”
The investigation, according to McCullough and other experts, applied a magnifying glass to culpable dealers. “These items were being sold to him lawfully,” an attorney for Steinhardt said in an email to ARTnews, describing the artifacts he forfeited as “wrongfully taken by others.” Legal perspectives on the subject are not monolithic. In a New York court ruling issued in September 2021 involving a disputed Anatolian Turkish idol, a federal judge found that Steinhardt had “no standalone duty to investigate, even if such a duty would attach to art dealers, museums, or other commercial actors,” despite evidence of “red flags.”
This cultural shift in expectations has advanced rapidly in the last decade, in museums and philanthropy, and in the world at large. Starting in 2019, Steinhardt’s reputation took hit after hit. He faced back-to-back allegations of misconduct, not only in his collecting but in his philanthropic work. Women in the Jewish community and in the nonprofit world seeking his funding shared stories of his having made comments viewed as sexist, often aimed at their fertility, while their colleagues sat idly by. The allegations came as the #MeToo movement spurred women to interrogate the misogynistic drift coursing through the workplace.
In an investigation conducted by the New York Times and ProPublica, and another in a lawsuit, seven women who had worked with Steinhardt alleged that he had aimed sexually explicit remarks at them—including requests for sex with him and other male colleagues—while they were seeking his funding or working in positions he’d endowed. They recalled that some of his worst transgressions referenced women’s reproductive roles: he allegedly made directives for single women to marry Jewish men for money, and suggested to a rabbi, who held a clerical position he endowed, that she be his concubine. She called the standard for what women in his network were expected to endure in silence “horrifying.” Birthright cofounder Bronfman told the Times that Steinhardt’s remarks could be attributed to a perverse sense of humor. (Steinhardt has denied some of the allegations and apologized for his comments.)
Others see woven into the accounts something atypical of other #MeToo scandals. The accusations against Steinhardt, wrote Batya Ungar-Sargon for Jewish-American newspaper The Forward, “reflect an obsession with other people having sex.” It’s an undercurrent flowing through ideas about a religious “continuity crisis,” a theory put forward by conservative Jewish thinkers. Some critics see the theory as inherently sexist for its focus on women’s bodies and, primarily, their output of children.
As the museum world shifted, the calls grew deafening for institutions to reckon with an outsize reliance on donations from private collectors. With that came closer probes into the dealings of megadonors in the cultural space seen as problematic. Since 2016, institutions that have accepted donations from the likes of David Koch, Warren Kanders, Leon Black, and members of the Sackler family have faced public pressure to sever links to those heavyweight philanthropists, whose personal ties or sources of capital are held to be misaligned with museum constituents’ values. Artist Andrea Fraser advocated such action; her book 2016: in Museums, Money, and Politics unveiled how patrons with immense political-funding power govern U.S. museums, and quashed the illusion that art institutions are democratic. Darren Walker, president of the $16 billion-endowed Ford Foundation, one of the country’s largest arts funders, has wrestled with old models of philanthropy shaped by figures like Andrew Carnegie, which have long ignored social issues they claim to be alleviating. Other critics see the recent uptick in social-impact giving as “philanthropic plutocrats” enriching themselves while paying lip service to donees.
“Often, what we see among these very wealthy philanthropists is a desire to translate their business success to philanthropic success,” Berman told ARTnews. Steinhardt is no exception, she said. It’s one way donors preside over wealth, “to continue to control it as opposed to simply being taxed.”
By today’s standards, Steinhardt resembles a figure from a bygone era. Multiple investigations into his private dealings have unveiled a distinctive paternalistic flair, whether it be toward artifacts of centuries past or his women colleagues. The growing perception of antiquities collectors as participants in a trade tainted by violence from European imperial campaigns has made figures like Steinhardt even more controversial, and those feelings have become reflected in increasing public calls for institutions to match their missions to the behavior of their donor circles—and to reconsider how hollow the promise of collecting for posterity can become.
Steinhardt’s collecting of antiquities proved equally disruptive to his reputation. It began with a 2,300-year-old marble bull’s head from Lebanon that Steinhardt purchased from fellow collectors William and Lynda Beierwaltes, then loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When he discovered issues with provenance shortly after he purchased the piece in 2010, Steinhardt insisted on returning the head to the Beierwalteses; but the damage was done. A Met curator noted the issues in 2014 and, shortly after, DA Vance initiated an investigation into the bull’s head. That inquiry inevitably turned over stones related to Steinhardt’s other such antiquities purchases. As McCullough noted, the entire field is rife with gray areas and ties to complicit government officials abroad.
“Part of my attraction to ancient art is that there is an element of risk,” Steinhardt said in 2005, referring to shady dealers and thin provenance records as part of the speculative thrill of the trade. “It’s like an addiction to me.”
Throughout 2017, Steinhardt was the recurring target of subpoenas and search warrants by Manhattan authorities. A marble torso of a man carrying a calf, also from Lebanon and purchased from the Beierwalteses, was seized, leading to more investigations that culminated in the seizure of at least nine objects from his Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park and his nearby office. That year, Vance and Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, a former classics scholar and U.S. Marine colonel, embarked on a major effort to confiscate displaced antiquities.
“I think that [Steinhardt] represents, and so do many people, a world that existed in the 19th century,” Bogdanos told ARTnews, comparing him to “gentleman collectors” who acquired exotic fauna across international borders in service of imperial projects. “I think we’re seeing the last gasps of that mentality.”
The Antiquities Trafficking Unit, and the investigation into Steinhardt, started more or less as a pet project of Bogdanos, who built his reputation as a force in repatriation while stationed in Iraq. After the Baghdad Museum was looted during the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, an event for which the Pentagon was publicly excoriated, Bogdanos spent several years leading an experimental team to recover a thousand of the plundered artifacts. He worked across government agencies that were newly deregulated under the Bush administration’s counterterrorism efforts. At the time, museum officials like de Montebello sounded the alarm and even called for amnesty for looters. The museum pillaging and Bogdanos’s moves were high-profile—he received a National Humanities Medal from then President George W. Bush and published a memoir recounting his efforts. And when he returned to New York, he brought his antiquities-recovery expertise, and his militant zeal, to the DA’s office.
“Essentially we used a model that was an experiment in Afghanistan, developed in Iraq, but applied to New York law,” he said.
The unit has since grown from two to a team of 16 analysts and lawyers working with foreign government contacts accumulated by Bogdanos during his military career. In that time, the prosecutor has carried out more than 4,800 seizures of antiquities from museums, auction houses, collectors, and art fairs, totaling more than $300 million; the unit’s investigations have also led to the conviction of 11 traffickers and the indictment of six more. (Bogdanos relies heavily on circumstantial evidence to get a judge to grant warrants in order to carry out seizures.)
The unit’s focus, according to Bogdanos, is less on scoring convictions and more on returning as much looted material as possible. While Bogdanos is determined to return artifacts with ancient roots to officials abroad, Steinhardt has appeared less determined to fight back. The octogenarian walked away with an unusual deal that saw him surrender only a fraction of his collection. Bogdanos has openly wrestled with these kinds of resolutions. Prosecuting wealthy collectors whose art holdings derive from many countries is no small task. Bringing Steinhardt to trial, he said, would have entailed producing witnesses from nations like Turkey, Iraq, Italy, and Libya, which simply “don’t have the resources” to send them, he said. And this is how most investigations play out. All the same, they continue to turn up information that leads to additional seizures, targeting a pool of historical conduits making up a trade he called “extraordinarily incestuous.”
“It was a difficult decision and not one that was made hastily,” Bogdanos told ARTnews of the final deal his office reached with Steinhardt’s legal team.
Some experts have been critical of Bogdanos’s efforts—and, in effect, his investigation into Steinhardt and others—as opportunistic, or antagonistic to museums. McCullough, the attorney, said that the unit will likely retire with Bogdanos after “legacy thefts” like Steinhardt’s are dealt with. The prosecutor, according to McCullough, has been the sole advocate of antiquities policing in New York.
“Legally, it’s not complicated, what he’s doing. It was just really low-hanging fruit,” McCullough said, “so he took it.”
Kate Fitz Gibbon, an attorney who specializes in cultural property, fears that seizure of historical materials at this scale could play into nationalist dynamics and fuel disinformation campaigns abroad. “When people talk about cultural property, they use clichés,” Fitz Gibbon told ARTnews. “Objects are never defined as to what their actual value is, which can be somewhat deceptive because they’re always referred to as priceless.”
Some have been skeptical of the unit’s tactics as well. A 2020 report by nonprofit research group RAND found that links between the illicit antiquities trade and terrorist activity had been widely exaggerated, and specifically named Bogdanos as the source of misinformation exaggerating those links. Bogdanos has said he publicly connected the trade with terrorism in order to keep a spotlight on returning antiquities—and despite the report, he staunchly continues his push to do so.
Running in the background of the Steinhardt investigation are some delicate politics: museums have backed off from archaeological acquisitions, as the repatriation movement gains steam. Curators like de Montebello and then president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust James Cuno have been openly critical of the amplified pressure to return objects to their home countries. The two have argued that the calls can reinforce nationalist agendas and threaten the purpose of the “encyclopedic” museum in the West: to preserve and maintain open access to Classical materials to be studied on a global scale. In 2002 Cuno and de Montebello were among the 18 leaders of major institutions, including the Guggenheim Museum and the Louvre, to decry the push for universal returns that they said could “narrow the focus” of their collections. And, as Edward Rothstein wrote for the Times in 2008, cultural property has become increasingly used “to consolidate cultural bureaucracies and state control.” In 2019 the U.S. renewed an agreement with China giving the Chinese government full control of the country’s antiquities trade, despite evidence of the state’s move to raze Uighur sites. One consequence is that the number of antiquities collectors is diminishing.
Some experts in the field have suggested that the broadening repatriation, and the concurrent police seizures, counteract the intent of the seemingly white-hat UNESCO 1970 convention that public officials often quote when taking credit for these recoveries. That standard, Fitz Gibbon points out, had a universalist attitude that originally sought the “legitimate” circulation of art between international borders. Archaeologist Lynn Meskell has criticized the use of the convention, which pushes for governments to repossess property and moves talks away from conserving art entirely. “I don’t think we should be treating cultural artifacts like contraband,” Fitz Gibbon said.
The optics are more fraught when public benefactors are involved. An Atlantic report revealed that the DA’s office has fielded calls from influential figures requesting leniency on behalf of their subpoenaed peers. Asked whether he had received such calls while investigating Steinhardt, Bogdanos told ARTnews, “Of course there are those calls. If you know anything about my background, you know that doesn’t play well with me.”
Steinhardt has openly pondered the impact of misconduct among powerful figures in finance. In 2008 he opined that there should have been more accountability for Wall Street’s misdeeds that left the country reeling amid the financial crisis. He asked in a Reuters interview, “Is this a villain-less debacle?” Almost a decade earlier, in 2000, he’d written a letter to President Clinton asking for clemency for Marc Rich, a fugitive oil trader and former colleague. In the note, he suggested that Clinton consider, when mulling a pardon, that Rich was “unusually philanthropic.”
Philanthropists’ generosity can often burnish a public image; and maintaining that image, Berman said, is no trifling endeavor. In August, Steinhardt officially stepped down from NYU’s board of trustees, owing to the investigation. Amid the ousting, he expressed regret over his collecting that “distracted” from the university’s work. Played out in his removal are tensions around institutional governance. The move came months after a group of 26 faculty members, in an open letter, called for his name to be stripped from the school’s public visage. After all, the statement’s authors pointed out, “the privilege of naming is part of the educational mission.” (Steinhardt declined to respond to an ARTnews inquiry about future NYU financial support.)
Across each investigation, Berman sees links between how Steinhardt operated, as both a donor and collector, that mirror his Wall Street persona. It is one that emphasizes an appetite for speculative risk-taking and brazenness—two features on which he built his public reputation. “That way of behaving in the realm of his financial success, he carried with him into other realms,” she said.
A version of this article appears in the 2022 edition of ARTnews’s Top 200 Collectors issue, under the title “Learning from Michael Steinhardt.”