An American hedge-fund billionaire has surrendered 180 looted and illegally smuggled antiquities valued at $70 million and been handed an unprecedented lifetime ban on acquiring other relics as part of an agreement with the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

Michael Steinhardt, one of the world’s largest collectors of ancient art, “displayed a rapacious appetite for plundered artefacts,” the district attorney Cyrus Vance Jr said on Monday.
—The Guardian

“Mr. Steinhardt?”


“My name is Pedigrew. From the Office of the Manhattan District Attorney. Antiquities Trafficking Unit.”

“Ah. Uh … ”

“I hope I’m not disturbing you. Just doing a routine follow-up, to see if you’re in compliance with the agreement you signed last December to give up collecting antiquities.”

“Yes, of course. Splendid fellow, Mr. Vance. Tough, but fair. A mensch. Have a seat, please. If you don’t mind, not that chair. One of the legs keeps coming loose. Wouldn’t want you to … come to harm. Ha.”

“It’s very nice, the chair.”

“Do you think so? Got it at a flea market, in Mineola. Mrs. Steinhardt and I love flea markets. Would you believe I paid $45 for that chair? Guess they saw me coming.”

“Forty-five bucks? Boy, that is hard to believe.”

“I way overpaid. But for 45 bucks you’d think it would at least come with four good legs, wouldn’t you?”

“Absolutely. Criminal. I imagine it hasn’t been easy for you, giving up collecting. It was such a big part of your life.”

“I will tell you candidly, Mr. Pedigrew, it has not been easy. So, how is Cyrus?”

“District Attorney Vance? He retired.”

“Please give him my best. He did a crackerjack job. I hope he’ll run for governor. We need people like him. In Albany.”


“Cyrus? His name sounds more Persian to me. Though I don’t think the Vances hail from that part of the world.”

“No, the chair. I’d be willing to bet 45 bucks it’s Assyrian. Akkadian period. Say, 2250 B.C. or thereabouts?”

“Really? Hmm. And what makes you think that?”

Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

“For starters, the depiction of the royal lion hunt on chariot. Then there’s this cuneiform inscription on the arm here, stating that the chair is the property of Balu-ili, a court official of the time. The intaglio is typical of Mesopotamian engraving of the era. Wouldn’t you say?”

“Gosh, beats me. So, you think I didn’t overpay?”

“Oh, no. If you paid 45 bucks for this, I’d say you practically stole it.”

“Well, that is good news. Mrs. Steinhardt will be … Maybe I should take it to those people on the TV show. What’s it called? Antiques Roadshow?”

“We have people at the D.A.’s Office who could help you with an evaluation.”

“Well, that would be … great. But I wouldn’t want to put you to any—”

“That’s quite a fresco on the wall, there. Pompeii?”

“That? I think it was there when we moved in. The previous owner was Italian.”

“Is that Hecate? Sure looks like her. Wouldn’t want to run into her in a dark grotto. The yellow monochrome landscape reminds me of the frescoes in the villa of what’s his name, P. Fannius Synistor.”

“Does it? Don’t see it, myself.”

“Is that a dagger there, on your desk?”

“Letter opener. I get a huge amount of mail. Owing to my abundant philanthropic work.”

“I bet you do. May I? What a beauty. Ottoman?”

“Restoration Hardware.”

“No kidding? Wow. The damascening on the sheath is exquisite.”

“Yes, they’re good at knockoffs, Restoration.”

“Look at this inscription here, on the blade. Looks mid–16th century. My Farsi’s a bit rusty. ‘Something something slew my unfaithful lover something something and fed her body to the somethings.’ If you’d like, I could have Amir, one of the people in our division, translate it. He does crossword puzzles in Farsi.”

“I wouldn’t want you to go to any trouble.”

“Say, this is a spectacular carpet. Should I take off my shoes?”

“No, no. We got that at … Ikea, I believe.”

“I would never have guessed that. Boy, those Swedes. They’re incredibly versatile. Cars, vodka, sex toys, you’d expect, but carpets of this quality? Kind of reminds me of the work of the ateliers in the Safavid court during the second half of the 16th century.”

“Yeah? To me, a carpet is a carpet.”

“The motifs are so detailed. Chinese antelopes. Tigers. Ducks. Is that a pheasant? Yeah, definitely pheasant. And these verses of poetry, woven into the inner guard band. Who but Swedes would think of that? I should have brought Amir with me. He’d be in seventh heaven. You wouldn’t want to spill red wine on this carpet, would you?”

“Speaking of that, can I offer you something to drink? It’s early, but think I’ll have one myself.”

“No, but don’t let me stop you. Say, I meant to ask—the thing in your front hall—would that be the Ark of the Covenant?”

Christopher Buckley is the author of numerous books. His latest, Make Russia Great Again, is out now