The Manhattan North and South districts of New York City have counted 88 murders so far this year, up from 82 in 2020, according to the New York Police Department. That, in turn, is an increase over the 52 homicides in Manhattan in 2019, which in turn was an increase over the 31 homicides in Manhattan in 2018, according to statistics maintained by the mayor’s office of criminal justice.
What, you might wonder, has the district attorney of New York County, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., been up to while killings are skyrocketing in his own jurisdiction, on track to nearly triple from 2018 to 2021?
Instead of focusing on the alarming and dramatic increase in violent crime, the D.A. is obsessing over the former president’s old tax returns — and playing amateur archeologist in the arcane world of classical antiquities.
In December 2017, Vance announced “the formation of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office’s first-ever Antiquities Trafficking Unit,” staffed by “assistant district attorneys, analysts” and a paralegal. A press release this month about a settlement in an antiquities case lists no less than five “investigative analysts,” along with an assistant district attorney and a former assistant district attorney.
The reason that Vance is the “first ever” Manhattan D.A. to establish an “antiquities trafficking unit” is that the former prosecutors who held the office probably figured that taxpayer dollars were better spent on keeping New Yorkers safe from violent crime. Instead, Vance has devoted enormous resources to what his press release describes as “joint investigations with law-enforcement authorities in 11 countries: Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Turkey.”
If the chemical weapons-using regime in Syria, the Iranian client state in Lebanon, the Hashemite King of Jordan, or the friendlier governments in Israel, Italy, or Egypt want to chase antiques being held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or in the hands of private American collectors — well, good luck to them. The statues will not be any safer, or more accessible to scholars, in the hands of the government of the Ba’athist dictator Bashar al-Assad or of Turkey’s Islamist strongman Erdogan than they were at the Met or under private American ownership.
A civil suit by Turkey in the 1980s had prompted the Met eventually to part with 55 objects. Such a civil suit is a far more sensible approach to such matters than a criminal investigation that diverts resources away from violent crime.
What has Turkey done with the objects? A 2006 New York Sun editorial reported that they’d been languishing in a museum in Usak, in Western Turkey, that had attracted a paltry total of 769 visitors over five years — about as many as enter the Met every half hour in nonpandemic times.
Vance did not charge the collector in this latest case, Michael Steinhardt, with any crime, much less win a conviction by a jury. The prosecutor’s press release did denounce what it called Steinhardt’s “rapacious appetite for plundered artifacts.”
Vance said the agreement by Steinhardt to return the objects “guarantees that 180 pieces will be returned expeditiously to their rightful owners in 11 countries rather than be held as evidence for the years necessary to complete the grand-jury indictment, trial, potential conviction, and sentence.” Vance also said the agreement would “avoid over-burdening resource-scarce nations who would be called upon to provide witnesses in any grand jury or trial.”
It’s awfully considerate of Vance to worry about “over-burdening” countries like Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, or Bulgaria, but what about the burden on New York taxpayers? What about the burden on New Yorkers whose city is struggling amid the fear and economic damage wrought by violent crime?
Steinhardt, whom I admire for, among other things, his brilliance and creativity as a philanthropist, was my partner in the New York Sun between 2002 to 2008 and was a part-owner of the Forward when I worked there from 1995 to 2000. It’s possible my view of this situation is affected by my affection for him, which is considerable. We haven’t discussed the matter, and I haven’t seen him or spoken to him in some time.
A statement from his lawyers said he was pleased the matter was concluded without charges, and that he “reserved his rights to seek recompense from the dealers involved,” many of whom “made specific representations as to the dealers’ lawful title to the items, and to their alleged provenance.”
No fondness for Michael Steinhardt is required, though, to develop a reasonable answer to the question: How would you prefer the Manhattan District Attorney spend his time — doing something about the homicides that are tripling in his watch? Or helping the dictator of Syria or the government of Bulgaria pursue claims to art?
The ideology undergirding the investigation—with Vance’s talk of “the rights of peoples to their own sacred treasures” — leads to the great museums of New York and London being emptied. What about the rights of peoples not to be gunned down on a Manhattan street corner?
Lucky for New Yorkers, Vance is on his way to the exit. Hope for his elected successor, Alvin Bragg, who takes office in January, to have better judgment about prosecutorial priorities.
Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of "JFK, Conservative." Read Ira Stoll's Reports — More Here.
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