Billionaire swindled his pricey art collection, turns in more than $70 million to FBI

By Kristen Ginns, CNN • Updated 25th May 2018

A multimillionaire real estate investor who owns over 40 nightclubs in New York City and Las Vegas surrendered his collection of stolen treasures after a 30-year FBI investigation.

The rest will be stolen from other owners, according to U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman.

Billionaire Michael Steinhardt, known for his charity work and eccentric financial deals, handed over $70 million in loot, authorities announced Thursday. He is accused of stealing more than 200 pieces of art and antiquities, which included a 19th century marble bust, a Tyrannosaurus tooth and a 2,500-year-old bronze sculpture.

Berman said in a press conference Thursday that over time, tens of thousands of pieces of stolen art were sold illegally by Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses.

Berman said Steinhardt was arrested in 1990 as part of the investigation into the theft of art and antiquities. But he said the FBI was never able to connect him to the alleged crime.

Steinhardt filed a lawsuit in 2002 to try to stop the prosecution, but Berman said that Steinhardt dropped his lawsuit because the “facts of the case became too difficult to overcome.” Steinhardt’s lead attorney withdrew from the case, and Steinhardt’s legal team started preparing for his surrender, Berman said.

A criminal investigation has long concluded, but in 2009 Steinhardt was elected president of the American Alliance of Museums in 2012, according to Berman. The museums group vigorously objected to Steinhardt’s election, arguing that in that role he should not be involved in prosecuting museums for any violations of federal law. Steinhardt has since resigned from that position.

Steinhardt told the Associated Press that he didn’t know about the FBI investigation, and that the accusation was “nonsense.”

“This kind of accusation is ridiculous,” Steinhardt said, “and somehow the guy who came up with it is doing a fair investigation.”

As a result of the FBI’s work, the art, antiquities and jewelry were returned to Jewish museums and hundreds of its valued items were returned to the public. Steinhardt’s property seized from his collection is now in the possession of museums.

“We never would have been able to recover many of these items if not for the hard work of the investigative agents with the FBI’s art theft unit, as well as the owners of certain stolen cultural property who have cooperated with the FBI throughout the past three decades, working with our agency to recover lost and stolen treasures that otherwise would have fallen into the hands of those who would use such objects to perpetrate evil acts,” Ron Gilson, special agent in charge of the FBI’s art theft program, said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for Sotheby’s said in a statement, “Sotheby’s is fully supportive of this investigation and of this strong step taken by Michael Steinhardt.”

“Over the course of this investigation, Sotheby’s has cooperated fully and remain deeply saddened that, through false allegations made by unknown sources, Steinhardt has harmed Sotheby’s reputation. While we recognize and deeply respect Steinhardt’s commitment to supporting programs that serve the cultural heritage community, we believe that there is no valid reason for Sotheby’s to support this legal case,” the spokeswoman added.

A representative from Christie’s said: “Christie’s is pleased to have reached this conclusion with the defendants. Christie’s agrees with the judge and US Attorney that there was no basis for maintaining a forfeiture proceeding against the company.”

Sotheby’s raised the stakes in its motion to dismiss last fall, claiming Steinhardt had consigned the artworks to the auction house’s auctions.

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