Manhattan counted 88 murders so far this year, up from 80 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 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 jurisdiction, on track to nearly triple from 2018 to 2021?
Instead of focusing on the 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.
The reason that Mr. Vance is the “first ever” Manhattan D.A. to establish an “antiquities trafficking unit” is that his predecessors probably figured that taxpayer dollars were better spent on keeping New Yorkers safe from violent crime.
Mr. Vance, in contrast, has devoted enormous resources to what his press release in a case settled this month 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 Metropolitan Museum 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?
Turns out that they’d been languishing in a museum in Usak, in Western Turkey, according to an editorial issued in the Sun in 2006. The museum had attracted a scant 769 visitors over five years — about as many as enter the Met every half hour in non-pandemic times.
Mr. 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 Mr. Steinhardt’s “rapacious appetite for plundered artifacts.”
Mr. Vance said the agreement by Mr. 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.”
Mr. 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 Mr. Vance to worry about “over-burdening” countries like Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, or Bulgaria.
What, though, about the burden on New York taxpayers and others here whose city is struggling amid the fear and economic damage wrought by violent crime?
Mr. Steinhardt, whom I admire for, among other things, his brilliance and creativity as a philanthropist, and I were partners in the New York Sun between 2001 and 2008. He was a part-owner of the Forward when I worked there between 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?