Monday 6 December 2021

Way to Go: Another Antiquities Collector Loses His Stuff

Philanthropist and antiquities collector Michael Steinhardt in 2018 (JVP) 
Michael Steinhardt, one of the world’s largest antiquities collectors (he calls them "ancient art"), has been mentioned in the media and on this blog many times before. part of the reason for this is that there are severe problems in the stated (or unstated)  collection history of some of the antiquities that we know about. Some of them seem to have been acquired in a manner that in hindsight, at least, was rather reckless and with scant regard to the procedures responsible collectors might be expected to being following. By acting in this way under the conviction that they are somehow 'untouchable' and 'entitled', collectors like this are flipping off (right, above) not only heritage professionals and conservationists but also the civil societies or every country whose cultural heritage is pilfered of trophy items to sell to people like this. 

Anyway, there sometimes is some karma. It is being reported that after some rather long investigations, Michael Steinhardt is handing over 180 items reportedly worth $70m and has accepted a lifetime ban on purchasing further antiquities.
The seized pieces were looted and illegally smuggled out of 11 countries, trafficked by 12 criminal smuggling networks, and lacked verifiable provenance prior to appearing on the international art market, according to the Statement of Facts summarizing the investigation. “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,” said District Attorney Vance. “His pursuit of ‘new’ additions to showcase and sell knew no geographic or moral boundaries, as reflected in the sprawling underworld of antiquities traffickers, crime bosses, money launderers, and tomb raiders he relied upon to expand his collection. “Even though Steinhardt’s decades-long indifference to the rights of peoples to their own sacred treasures is appalling, the interests of justice prior to indictment and trial favor a resolution that ensures that a substantial portion of the damage to world cultural heritage will be undone, once and for all.
This of course is a totally ridiculous legalistic sentiment based on ideas of "ownership" what has been damaged, and irretrievably, is the archaeological evidence of each and every one of the sites dug into to produce these trophy items. And for every artefact that made its way onto the US market for the dealers Steinhardt once patronised to profit from, hundreds, perhaps thousands of archaeological contexts were trashed to find that one, eminently saleable item. Even if every single one of those now-loose objects were "repatriated" (the current US cultural leitmotif) the damage done - driven by the acquisitive greed of collectors like Steinhardt - can never be undone. It is not the repatriation of items that is needed, but cutting the link between dealers and looters. Since we have seen time and time again that the dealers are unwilling to clean up their act, it seems to me that the most effective way to deal with this is every time to go after the collectors. If more and more people are leery of buying the dodgily unpapered stuff offered by vague and secretive dealers, but insist on having material so transparently and verifiably licitly-obtained, those dealers will be forced to change their business model (and suppliers) or go out of business. Got to go after the collectors.

Steinhardt can afford the legal fees to defend his purchases, and to lose the $70million for artefacts (many of which he enjoyed for many years already), but many other collectors now need to be made to pay for their sense of privilege.

The Stargazer of course was not mentioned, because Steinhardt shifted it before this judgement. There are plenty more of them coming on the market in the UK now, with even less paperwork than Mr Steinhardt had.


Judd Tully said...

Speaking of the term you used ‘repatriated,’ reminds me of Nazi era looted art that wound up in’respectable’ collections & only found out about decades later with some owners aggressively fighting in the courts to keep their looted treasures, even if they didn’t originally know the source. Selling back those ‘repatriated’ treasures by the big auction houses have become a nice sideline for the auction houses. A looted Renoir, for example, wouldn’t be covered in dirt but it’s kind of the same thing. What do you think?
Judd Tully

Paul Barford said...

I think that there is a huge conceptual muddle here. The return of so-called "Holocaust art" to individual owners is not quite the same thing as the repatriation to a whole state. The processes are in fact the direct opposite, Holocaust art only goes back to a presumed source country on the demonstrated absence of legitimating circumstances.

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