Last month, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office struck yet another blow against the bad actors who exploit the American art market. Their latest success highlights a lingering weakness in the multibillion-dollar industry: Self-regulation and voluntary policing have not worked. No bad publicity or civil fines. Criminal investigations and legal consequences are needed to stop the trade in illicit antiquities.
On December 6, following a three-year grand jury investigation, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr. announced the seizure of $ 70 million worth of looted antiques from Michael H Steinhardt. The hedge fund titan escaped charges but was sentenced to life in prison in other ways. To avoid prosecution, Steinhardt agreed to a definitive ban on collecting ancient art, the first of its kind.
This unprecedented step, described as “a deferred prosecution agreement, âCan be more effective than a conviction. This should eliminate a big buyer of illicit antiques from the market forever. This is no small feat, because repeated litigation and scandals since the 1990s have failed to curb what Vance has described as “the billionaire’s rapacious appetite for looted artifacts.”
This news came closely in the wake of other major criminal cases. First, in September, the art dealer Nancy Wiener pleaded guilty to three counts of trafficking in antiques valued at millions of dollars. Then, in October, “adventurous scholarDouglas Latchford has made headlines on several continents for his prolific career as a smuggler. While Latchford died fighting extradition to the United States in 2020, the Pandora Papers opened the box of his crimes, illustrating how he hid millions of dollars from decades of looting through the misuse of tax havens, trusts and offshore accounts. The federal government made it clear that its investigation of him and his associates was “”In progress.”
The unmasking of Latchford, Wiener and Steinhardt is a reminder that the $ 50.1 billion art market remains the largest unregulated industry in the world. After all, they weren’t street vendors, they were perched at the top of the cultural scene. Steinhardt (always) has a gallery named after him at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Wiener, and her mother before her, boasted of clients such as Jacqueline Kennedy, John D. Rockefeller III, and Igor Stravinsky. Sir Latchford, pre-charge, has been feted by royalty in Europe and Asia.
Yet all three weren’t content with making regrettable purchases. They knowingly, willfully, and concretely linked themselves to some of the worst humanitarian conflicts and tragedies of the past half a century – from the Killing Fields in Cambodia and the Swat Valley to Pakistan to Lebanon, to Iraq and others. hot spots of the world where there are armed insurgents and violent extremists. known to profit from illicit trade. Relying on false papers and their then sterling reputation, they have successfully laundered countless âblood antiquesâ and other stolen goods from the legitimate market. Their names frequently echoed in auction blocks at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. And they have sold or donated works to the world’s greatest museums, including the Met, the British Museum, and the National Gallery of Australia.
While some of these institutions may have been genuinely defrauded, most should have known. They are global art leaders with entire departments of lawyers and academics to ensure their acquisitions are legal and ethical. But despite their degrees and other resources, despite red flag after red flag, they continued to accept coins, with few (if any) questions asked.
Such willful blindness has allowed cultural racketeering to become a major global crime. It is difficult to quantify the damage, but Steinhardt alone is known to have purchased more than 1,000 antiques, now valued at $ 400 million. In a related case, authorities recovered more than $ 143 million worth of antiques looted just from the Manhattan properties of art dealer Subhash Kapoor. This is in addition to an additional $ 50 million in illicit artifacts seized from others in New York City since 2017.
Compare that to bank robbery – across the United States thieves only run away with about $ 30 million every year, starting in 2015. Those captured are severely prosecuted with high conviction rates. However, for art and antiques, criminal cases against even prolific delinquents like Steinhardt, Wiener, Latchford and Kapoor are by far the exception, not the rule.
In what industry, other than art, can you search for stolen goods worth hundreds of millions of dollars, or even directly arrange their theft, then expect praise and not prosecution if you return them? ? Looting is a crime. Trafficking is a crime. Possession of stolen goods is a crime. If you commit or facilitate any of these offenses, you should be held accountable. You not only deserve to lose the trust of the public, but also to become the focus of our justice system.
Recent revelations have given the art market and museums an unprecedented opportunity to step up, right past wrongs, and be part of the solution, not the problem. So far, most have failed to take it. Hopefully, the United States and other governments have taken note of this in turn – the only way to fight cultural racketeering in the future is to treat cultural racketeers like the criminals they are.
Deborah Lehr is President and Co-Founder of Antiquities Coalition and CEO of Edelman Global Advisory.