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U.S. Billionaire’s Shameful Art Heist Ends in Glorious Homecoming

Italy Culture Ministry handout
Italy Culture Ministry handout

ROME—Ancient statues, Etruscan bowls and fresco ripped from a wall in ancient Herculaneum are among the treasures worth $20 million returned to Italy on Monday. Many belonged to the scorned American billionaire Michael Steinhardt, who was banned for life from acquiring antiquities by the Manhattan District Attorney on Dec. 21.

The ban—the first of its kind—was handed down after 180 stolen objects worth $70 million were seized from his private collection in December 2021. “For decades, Michael Steinhardt displayed a rapacious appetite for plundered artifacts without concern for the legality of his actions, the legitimacy of the pieces he bought and sold, or the grievous cultural damage he wrought across the globe,” District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr., wrote in a statement.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Italy Culture Ministry handout</div>
Italy Culture Ministry handout

Others in the cache, displayed in a palatial hall inside the Italian Cultural Ministry headquarters in Rome, came from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They were handed to New York City’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, which is led by Col. Matthew Bogdonas, who attended Monday’s reveal.

The most valuable of the pieces is the $3 million Marble Head of Athena and a fresco from Herculaneum, which, like Pompei, was destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius volcano when it erupted in 79 A.D.

The head of Italy’s patrimony police, General Vincenzo Molinese, said that the object’s real value is “priceless” as part of Italy’s “historic, artistic and cultural identity.”

The objects’ return to Rome is the fruit of an extensive criminal investigation that included scouring social media and black market auctions to identify the missing pieces. They left Italy after being looted by tomb raiders, sold by illicit art dealers and purchased by curators who were either unknowing, or who chose not to look for falsified documents.

<div class="inline-image__credit">The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Italy Cultural Ministry Handout</div>
The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Italy Cultural Ministry Handout

Bogdonas said Monday that while celebrating this success is important, the hunt is not over. “As we celebrate, in Italy, right now, something else is being stolen,” he told those attending the unveiling.

Many of the items that aren’t returned to the Italian regions where they came from will be on display in Italy’s new Museum of Rescued Art, which has no shortage of new exhibits.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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