By Rory Fleming
As Interpol states online, crimes against cultural heritage constitute a category of international war crime. People get extradited to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for it. The rationale is that systematically destroying a people’s history is in the same ballpark as systematically destroying its people.
In New York, where Michael Steinhardt collected $70 million in stolen antiquities, it is a felony punishable by up to 25 years in prison: at least when the value is over $1 million. If county-level prosecutors were at their most zealous, they could have stacked 70 charges on him, carrying up to 1,750 years in prison. Steinhardt is 81 years old.
Nonetheless, the BBC reports that Steinhardt managed to obtain a no-prosecution plea deal with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. He just had to give up his antiquities.
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance delivered this dramatic tidbit at the time: “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. 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.”
Is this actually justice? In 2018, after Reginald Randolph, a 58-year-old Black man with serious mental and physical health issues, stole dozens of boxes of cold medicine, he received two to four years in a New York State prison. The outcome in that case was much harsher than what Steinhardt received, but that is also true of many low-level theft cases it handles every week.
Or is it a case of restorative justice in action—one where the power of apology and mercy conquered the mindless impulse to destroy.
I think it is the latter. The injustice is that it has happened in a legal system that usually lords much smaller offenses over people who committed them for life. It is that, when mercy is dispensed, it is usually in favor of the mega-rich or powerful.
Take another recent example. In St. Louis County, Missouri, where Wesley Bell defeated Black Lives Matter antagonist Bob McCulloch in the 2018 District Attorney race, local reporters described how prosecutors decided to bring together police officer Julia Crews and the person she shot for a restorative justice process. The victim forgave and the officer evaded charges.
However, the power imbalance between the police officer and the victim was huge. Crews was a white woman and her victim was a Black woman. Crews was a police officer and her victim was someone who became “justice-involved” from the moment she entered into a conflict with a police officer. Crews cried in her booking photo, showcasing a vulnerability that would have mobilized many in her defense. She claimed she meant to use a Taser, but grabbed the wrong weapon.
If restorative justice leading to the dropping of charges and nothing less is uncommon in St. Louis County for serious violent crimes like the one Crews seems to have committed, then Bell, despite being elected as a “reformer,” is using his power in an arbitrary and discriminatory fashion. Despite showing that restorative justice can be possible, he is reserving it for the powerful, the white. The police.
Yet our ire should be directed toward the stinginess of mercy, not its very occasional dispension. Perhaps outgoing Manhattan DA Cy Vance should drop another $70 million worth of theft charges. New York City should pay the difference to make shopkeepers whole. Perhaps St. Louis County DA Wesley Bell should pick up a file on a non-fatal gang shooting, phone the defendant, then say he’ll waive charges in exchange for an apology if the victim accepts.
Wake me up when this happens: I expect I will be sleeping for a long time.
Rory is a writer and licensed attorney.