All roads lead to Michael Steinhardt: That’s what Matthew Bogdanos of the Manhattan district attorney’s office learned when he started investigating the penetration of the black market for antiquities into the New York art scene. Steinhardt was a prominent New Yorker, a billionaire with his name on buildings and schools, one of the founders of the Birthright Israel program. He also had a massive collection of antiquities and didn’t care about the provenance of the ancient objects that filled his penthouse apartment:
Determined to be more than another dilettante, Steinhardt built up a library of reference books on antiquities and subscribed to archaeology magazines. He scoured catalogues from Christie’s and Sotheby’s and developed fast relationships with prominent dealers. “He struck me as someone who has a fine eye,” said Aboutaam, that is, an innate sense for which objects held particular significance. Before long, he was spending millions of dollars a year on bronze figurines and Roman mosaics, terracotta idols and stone skulls.
At the time, the antiquities trade was almost entirely unregulated. Fake artifacts were common, as were unscrupulous dealers who had developed numerous methods, including straw purchases and forged paperwork, to skirt patrimony laws designed to keep cultural property from being smuggled out of its country of origin. In 1973, John D. Cooney, a renowned curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art, told the New York Times that “95 percent of the ancient art material in this country has been smuggled in.” Anybody who thought otherwise, he added, would have to be “naïve or not very bright.”
Steinhardt was unconcerned. “My overwhelming motivation in buying ancient art was their aesthetics,” he once said in a deposition. “And aesthetics had almost nothing to do with provenance.” He boldly admitted that he would buy pieces that were “fresh,” i.e., taken straight out of the ground, and said he was willing to accept the risk that those purchases might have broken the law. As an investor, mastering risk had brought him wealth and prestige. Why should antiquities be different?