Last month, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office hit another blow against villains who abuse the American art market. Their recent success highlights continued weaknesses in the multi-billion dollar industry. Self-regulation and voluntary crackdowns are not working. There are no bad publicity or civil fines. Criminal investigations and legal implications are required to stop trading illegal relics.
On December 6, after a three-year grand jury investigation, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr. Announced the seizure of $ 70 million worth of looted relics from Michael H. Steinhart. The hedge fund giant escaped prosecution, but was otherwise sentenced to life imprisonment. To avoid prosecution, Steinhart agreed to permanently ban the collection of the first ancient art of this kind.
This unprecedented step is “Postponed prosecution agreement, ”May be more effective than a conviction. It should permanently eliminate the major buyers of illegal relics from the market. This is not a trivial matter, as repeated proceedings and scandals since the 1990s have been unable to suppress what Vance described as a “fierce desire for predatory artifacts.”
This news came shortly after other major criminal cases. First, in September, art dealer Nancy Wiener pleaded guilty to three felony charges for trafficking millions of dollars in relics. Then, in October, “adventurer scholar” Douglas Latchford made headlines on several continents for his own prolific smuggling career. Latchford died in the fight against handing over to the United States in 2020, but Pandora Paper opened the box of his crimes and millions from decades of plunder by misuse of tax havens, trusts and offshore accounts. Indicates that you have hidden the dollar. The federal government has revealed that their investigation into him and his associates is “in progress.”
The unmasking of Latchford, Wiener and Steinhardt reminds us that the $ 50.1 billion art market is still the largest unregulated industry in the world. After all, they weren’t backstreet merchants, they were sitting at the top of the cultural scene. Steinhardt (yet) has a gallery named after him at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Wiener and her former mother boasted clients such as Jacqueline Kennedy, John D. Rockefeller III and Igor Stravinsky. Before the indictment, Sir Latchford was favored by European and Asian royalty.
But not all three made a disappointing purchase. They are the worst conflicts of the last half century, from the Killing Fields in Cambodia and the Swat Valley in Pakistan to the war-torn Lebanon, Iraq and other global hotspots with armed groups and violent radicalists. It is deliberately, positively and concretely linked to some of the humanitarian tragedy. It is known to profit from illegal transactions. Relying on counterfeit paper and fame at the time, they succeeded in laundering countless “bloody antiques” and other stolen property into legitimate markets. Their names were often heard from Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction blocks. He also sold or donated his work to major museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, and the National Gallery of Australia.
Some of these agencies could really be scammed, but most should know better. These are art world leaders with all divisions of lawyers and scholars to ensure that their acquisitions are legal and ethical. However, despite the bachelor’s degree and other resources, despite the succession of red flags, they continued to accept the work and had few questions.
Such willful blindness has made cultural extortion a major crime worldwide. Although it is difficult to quantify the harm, it is known that Steinhardt alone purchased more than 1000 relics, which is estimated to be $ 400 million today. In a related case, authorities recovered more than $ 143 million in relics plundered from Manhattan’s assets, only the art dealer Subhash Kapoor. This adds to an additional $ 50 million of illegal artifacts seized from others in New York since 2017.
Compare this to bank robbery — across the United States, thieves About $ 30 million Every year, as of 2015. Those arrested have been severely charged with high conviction rates. However, for works of art and ancient relics, criminal cases against prolific criminals such as Steinhart, Wiener, Latchford, and Kapoor are exceptions and are not rules.
In any industry other than the arts, can you seek out hundreds of millions of dollars worth of stolen property or arrange a direct theft and return it with praise instead of prosecution? Looting is a crime. Trafficking in persons is a crime. Possession of stolen property is a crime. If you commit or promote any of these violations, you must be held liable. Not only do you lose public trust, but you deserve to be the focus of our judicial system.
Recent revelations have given art markets and museums an unprecedented opportunity to step up, correct past mistakes, and become part of the solution, not the problem. So far, most haven’t been able to take it. Hopefully, this time, I hope the United States and other governments are paying attention. From now on, the only way to fight cultural extortion is to treat cultural extortion as a criminal.
Deborah Lehr is Chairman and Co-Founder of the Antiquities Coalition and CEO of Edelman Global Advisory.