While spooks, treasure hunters, and lawyers search for cash, gold, and antiquities, Libya offers a lesson—and 1,001 cautionary tales—about how to recoup loot from kleptocrats.
The Islamic State, for example, had a dedicated office for antiquities that was led by senior operatives, which is understandable considering that, according to the Docket, stolen artifacts, along with oil and ransom payments, have been among the terror group’s biggest sources of income. “You don’t have to walk very far in Paris or New York to see the galleries, the dealers, the collectors who we believe have been involved in selling items looted by groups like ISIS.”
In the early morning hours of January 5, 2018, Manhattan assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos and Homeland Security Investigations special agent J.P. Labbat waited in the cold outside a tony apartment building on Fifth Avenue.
With teams at the front and the rear, they were outfitted for a raid, replete with weapons, windbreakers, and department shields. “Dawn. It’s when people are tired,” Bogdanos noted. “They’re slow. They’re sluggish. They’re less of a threat to you or themselves.
And when you go into any warrant…you go in assuming the worst. You maintain the security and safety of the team, and the integrity of the crime scene.”
But the scene that morning was not a stash house. It was a triplex belonging to a billionaire named Michael Steinhardt, a pioneer of the modern hedge fund and a prominent philanthropist whose name was emblazoned on prominent institutions, from The Metropolitan Museum of Art to NYU to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. “I’ll admit,” said Bogdanos, “we don’t ordinarily execute warrants where the building has a doorman.”
At 64, Bogdanos is himself something of a New York institution. Born to Greek immigrants on the Lower East Side, he had trained to become a professional boxer—with dreams of running his parents’ restaurant someday. Instead, he joined the Marines, eventually landing at Columbia Law, where he interned for New York State Supreme Court justice Harold Rothwax.
It was an indelible experience that changed his career trajectory: He ended up in the Manhattan D.A.’s office, where he became a homicide prosecutor. After 9/11, however, he was recalled to active duty, sent to Afghanistan, and, in 2003, to Iraq. “We were in Basra,” he reflected, “and I’ll never forget the day some reporter came running up to me, screaming that the finest museum in the world had just been looted.
I had taken a single course in Mesopotamian archaeology. I knew she had to be talking about the Iraq Museum.”
Bogdanos went to his superiors at U.S. Central Command and asked them to redirect some of his task force’s efforts so they could investigate the theft of invaluable Iraqi artifacts. “I said these exact words, ‘Come on, general, I’m a New York City homicide prosecutor. I will have this wrapped up in three to five days.’ Fast-forward, the investigation took about five years.”
In that time, though, Bogdanos and company concluded that the looting had been anything but indiscriminate. “We ultimately developed informants who told us that there were individuals who came in from all around the world and who walked through the museum as if checking off a shopping list and stole some of the most extraordinary pieces that humanity has ever seen.”
In the end, Bogdanos and his team recovered thousands of items, including the roughly 5,000-year-old Sacred Vase of Warka and Mask of Warka, which are said to be among the first known naturalist depictions of human life and the human face.
When he returned to civilian life, Bogdanos paired what had become twin passions—chasing criminals and stolen artifacts—by forming the Antiquities Trafficking Unit (ATU) in the New York D.A.’s office.
It is the only prosecutorial team of its kind in the U.S., and its 16 members, working closely with the Department of Homeland Security, have seized roughly 4,500 antiquities—all of which prosecutors say were looted—from more than two dozen nations. Few cases, however, measured up to Steinhardt’s.
“The day we did the first warrant at the Steinhardt home—the big one—we had a whole hallway full of agents, sort of stacked,” Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agent J.P. Labbat remembered, as we drove through Lower Manhattan in an undercover Dodge Charger. “I was at the very front with the prosecutor and we were the first two knocking on the door when Steinhardt opened it.”
As Labbat and Bogdanos raced up a stately internal staircase to conduct a safety sweep, they could hardly believe their eyes. “We went in, and it was like a museum.”
All three floors of the apartment were jammed with artifacts in every nook and cranny, Labbat recalled. “On top of the cupboards, in the bathroom, in a little closet space, there were artifacts everywhere.”
For Bogdanos, the scene was a throwback. “It looked exactly to me like the basement storage rooms of the Iraq Museum, and the material was extraordinary.”
After executing 17 search warrants, the team concluded that Steinhardt had acquired and sold over 1,000 antiquities since the 1980s, valued at more than $200 million at the time of purchase, which, since then, had doubled in value. Of those, prosecutors claimed that 180 had originally been stolen from 11 countries.
One item, found in Steinhardt’s living room, was a larger-than-life bust of a woman with an ornately carved head covering. According to the D.A.’s office, the piece, sculpted from reddish marble and dating back to 4th century BCE, was looted from a tomb in Cyrene, an archaeological wonder in northwest Libya. The figurine first appeared on the international art market in November 2000, a time when Qaddafi’s grip on power was absolute, but his country was under sanction.
“You can’t value these things, they’re priceless,” Bogdanos explained while sitting in his office filled with ephemera from a life spent taking people down—boxing opponents, murderers, and antiquities traffickers. “But if you have to, [the Libyan piece] was valued at $1.2 million.”
Both Bogdanos and his boss, District Attorney Alvin Bragg, have made anti-trafficking efforts a priority for their office. “The beauty and meaning of the antiquities on display in [New York City’s] museums are undermined if they are stolen and brought here illegally,” said Bragg. “We’ve sent a clear message that these pieces cannot just be sold at the behest of high-net worth individuals who are seeking to turn a profit—they belong in their country of origin. The days of turning a blind eye to antiquities trafficking is over.”
In December 2021—the same week, by sheer coincidence, that Warshavsky filed his LARMO request—Steinhardt signed a deferred prosecution agreement, pursuant to which he surrendered the items and agreed to a lifetime ban from acquiring antiquities.
(For his part, Steinhardt issued a statement declaring he was “pleased that the District Attorney’s years-long investigation has concluded without any charges,” adding that “items wrongfully taken by others will be returned to their native countries.”)
Some six weeks later, the D.A.’s office and Homeland Security team were at it again, seizing another antiquity that they said had been looted from Libya. This bust, however, was on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which contended that it had been “fully supportive” of the item’s return to Libya.
With an almost translucent veil covering one eye, the sculpture is eerie and entrancing, which is what ancient Greek artisans intended by placing it between the living and the dead in Cyrene’s necropolis.
Dr. Morgan Belzic was beaming. One of archaeology’s true boy wonders, the 36-year-old researcher for France’s Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art was attending a ceremony at One Hogan Place, home to the Manhattan D.A.’s office, which is recognizable to anyone who has seen an episode of Law & Order.
Bogdanos, Labbat, and their respective units were taking part in the formal handover to Libyan officials of two stunning busts—including the “Veiled Head of a Lady,” seized from The Met, that, with Belzic’s help, they had determined had been looted.
Khaled Daief, Libya’s chargé d’affaires and acting ambassador to Washington, was emotional at the prospect of repatriating the artifacts. The event was brief, by design: The antiquities trafficking teams had a joint raid planned for a few hours later.
The Libyans had plans of their own. Ahmed Alshanta, an embassy employee, carefully crated the Cyrenaican sculptures and affixed tamper-proof seals, identifying them as inviolable diplomatic pouches under Article 27.3 of the Vienna Convention—to ward off customs agents who might seek to open them.
Along with Daief, Alshanta escorted the precious cargo out to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey where it was loaded onto a Gulfstream G550, along with boxes containing Libyan-bound items seized in earlier raids, including the one at Steinhardt’s triplex.
Belzic took a seat across from me on the plane. Though his passport lists 1985 as his birth year, the French archaeologist looks like a teenager, with his mop of brown hair, hipster clothes, and a distressed leather iPad case resembling an ancient manuscript. Belzic was born to a middle-class family in the Loire Valley, famous for its magnificent castles.
As a child, he was fascinated by art and history, subjects he would go on to study at the École du Louvre and the Sorbonne. His doctoral work in Greek archaeology had a unique focus: Libya’s Cyrene, the 20-square-mile City of the Dead, and its intricately carved funerary sculptures, hundreds of which have since found their way, illegally, to virtually every continent.
Nowadays, a key component of Belzic’s job—literally—is to combat tomb raiders, along with the networks that support them, including smugglers, gallery owners, and public and private collectors who are too often lax about the provenance of what they buy and display.
For this reason, he has become a key ally to prosecutors like Bogdanos and civil society groups like the Clooney Foundation. It is also why he was on board: to ensure that the items he had established had been looted were safely returned to their country of origin.
Early the next morning, we arrived in Basel to change to a Swiss tail-numbered aircraft that had been authorized to fly into Tripoli, a dicey destination that, over the years, civil aviation authorities have subjected to no-fly orders.
As Swiss customs officers pressed the Libyans about the contents of their diplomatic pouch—to precisely no effect—a new passenger came on board: Antonia De Meo, director of the U.N.’s Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI).
UNICRI is a small U.N. entity with an eclectic portfolio that includes artificial intelligence, radiological and nuclear threats, countering political radicalization—and asset recovery.
“We’ve been able to identify $54 billion of assets that have been illegally removed from Libya,” the California-born De Meo explained as we flew over the Med. “Those can be financial assets, they can be cultural property, they can be airplanes. If even a small percentage could be returned, it can really make a difference to the Libyan people.”
It is a country she cares about deeply, having served in senior roles there for the U.N. during a bleak time. “The airport that we’re about to land in—Mitiga,” she pointed out, “was subject to numerous attacks during the conflict in 2019 and 2020. I was actually in Libya in April of 2019 when armed forces from the east tried to attack Tripoli. It’s a day I will never forget.”
De Meo’s return to her old posting—and the beleaguered airport—was not without its risks. Yet she could not pass up the chance to witness the handover of such precious goods, especially given the fact that UNICRI had played a vital role in establishing LARMO and has been along for its occasionally bumpy ride on the road to credibility and legitimacy.
s we taxied toward the VIP terminal at Mitiga, fire trucks trained water hoses over our plane—a sign of respect—creating a rainbowed archway. An honor guard stood in formation. We disembarked to find a long greeting line of Libyan officials and foreign dignitaries.
At the front, sandwiched between Libya’s antiquities chief and its special envoy to the United States, was Mo Mensli, grinning from ear to ear.
After some opening remarks at the airport, we drove in a high-speed convoy to the Red Castle, which over time has housed various rulers and now contains a small museum. Cameras flashed as the crates were opened and the funereal sculptures were put on display.
De Meo addressed a packed house. Ambassador Richard Norland, the U.S. special envoy to Libya, provided videotaped remarks, later telling Vanity Fair, “The historic return of ten artifacts, stolen from the ancient city of Cyrene, demonstrates the commitment of the United States to protect cultural heritage; it’s a victory for international cooperation and the rule of law.”
Through it all, Mensli was in the catbird seat. He had very publicly defied the doubters by arranging the return of a unique class of assets that were now, thanks to the work of archaeologists and American law enforcement, too high-profile to steal—something that cannot be said of the pallets of cash or bullion that may remain at large.
Next up: four pieces previously on display at the Louvre, the exquisite figurines that De Meo and her unit hope to help repatriate. The provenance of the sculptures is hardly a mystery; for months, they were the centerpiece of an exhibit titled, “Antiquities From Libya and Syria: Fighting the Illegal Traffic of Cultural Goods.”
“Getting the antiquities,” Mensli said as we sat for tea the following day, overlooking the lake in Zurich, 1,250 miles from Tripoli, “is the opening salvo in our fight to get what was stolen back to Libya.” But as is often the case in that country, it is easy to mistake motion for progress.
Libyan court rulings, whose validity may soon be reviewed by the country’s Supreme Court, found that Prime Minister Dabaiba had overstepped his authority by removing Mensli’s predecessor, Arif, according to several sources conversant with the case.
I asked Mensli about Shukri Ghanem, whose death on the Danube 10 years before had seemed like a cautionary tale. An individual describing himself as a friend of the deceased oil minister had suggested to me that Ghanem may have been killed to ensure his silence.
“One month before he died,” said the source, who requested anonymity out of fear that he might meet a similar fate, Ghanem “told me and others that he had written a memoir”—one that would break open the truth about those who had profited from the plunder. “That was the end.”
Mensli did not disagree about the stakes, “This is serious business. It’s life or death. You get labeled a thief for even trying to take back the money [that was stolen]. I have no illusions.”
He does, however, have a message for those hiding Libya’s treasure. “We will achieve our goals with negotiation as a first step. If people help us return assets that don’t belong to them, as we say in Arabic, ‘It’s not our job to hang them in the streets.’ If not, they will face certain justice.”