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Artifacts seized from US billionaire Michael Steinhardt have been returned to Italy among 142 looted items

Artifacts seized from US billionaire Michael Steinhardt have been returned to Italy among 142 looted items
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Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

New York officials have returned nearly $14 million worth of antiques stolen from Italy, including dozens of artifacts confiscated by US billionaire Michael Steinhardt.

More than a third of the 142 items handed over at a ceremony on Wednesday previously belonged to the former hedge fund manager, who was once one of the world’s most prominent collectors of antique art, according to Manhattan prosecutors.

Among the repatriated artifacts was a 2,000-year-old fresco depicting a young Hercules strangling a snake. It has an estimated value of $1 million and was looted from an archaeological site near Mount Vesuvius in Italy in 1995.

Later that year, Steinhardt purchased the work without seeing evidence of its ownership history, investigators said. Among the returns were a further 47 objects from his collection.

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

That "Ercolano fresco," from the year 50 AD belonged to the repatriated objects.

The “Ercolano fresco” from AD 50 was among the repatriated objects. Recognition: District Attorney of Manhattan

The announcement follows a year-long investigation into Steinhardt, who avoided charges after handing over 180 artifacts valued at an estimated $70 million and agreed to what officials described as an “unprecedented” lifetime ban on acquiring antiques.

In recent months, objects from his collection – from statues and sculptures to golden masksBowls and ceremonial vessels – were returned to countries such as Iraq, Israel and Turkey.

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

The investigation looked at more than 1,000 antiquities associated with Steinhardt since at least 1987. Authorities found he was in possession of looted artefacts smuggled by 12 criminal networks from 11 countries.

After the investigation concluded in December, then-Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr. said Steinhardt “exercised a predatory appetite for looted artifacts without concern for the legality of his actions, the legitimacy of the items he bought and sold, or the severe cultural damage it has done around the world.”

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In a statement provided to CNN at the time, Steinhardt’s attorneys, Andrew J. Levander and Theodore V. Wells Jr., said their client was pleased that the investigation had been completed without charges “and that items obtained by others unjustly taken back to their home countries.”

They claimed that “many” of the dealers from whom Steinhardt purchased stolen artifacts “had made specific representations as to the dealers’ rightful ownership of the items and their alleged provenance,” adding, “To the extent such representations are false were said Mr. Steinhardt reserves the right to demand a reward from the merchants involved.”

Of the other 94 items returned to Italy on Wednesday, 60 had been recovered from the Royal-Athena Galleries, a now-defunct New York gallery founded by late antiquities dealer and forgery expert Jerome M. Eisenberg. Prosecutors indicated no wrongdoing on the part of Eisenberg or the Royal-Athena Galleries, whom they thanked for “assistance and cooperation” with the investigation.

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

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