The Marine Turned Prosecutor Busting Antiquities Thieves

Matthew Bogdanos of the Manhattan district attorney’s office is a world-renowned expert in antiquities looting who’s hunted down artifacts from Iraq to the Upper East Side.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

When the Manhattan district attorney’s office raided a billionaire philanthropist’s home days after the new year, it was following the lead of its secret weapon: a Marine veteran and classics scholar whose passion lies in repatriating antiquities to their home countries.

Investigators walked away with at least nine artifacts looted from Greece and Italy that belonged to financier Michael Steinhardt. No charges have been filed against Steinhardt. The New York Times reported the raid took place under the auspices of a new antiquities unit led by Matthew Bogdanos.

Bogdanos enlisted in the Marine reserves in college, served as a Marine lawyer, and joined the DA’s office in 1988. When he went active-duty after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Bogdanos was sent to Afghanistan and Iraq, where he did counterterrorism work.

It was there that his extensive education in classics, including a master’s degree, came in handy. He was key to efforts to track down artifacts looted from from the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, and wrote a book, The Thieves of Baghdad, about his work.

The Manhattan DA’s office declined a request to interview Bogdanos, but in a 2009 interview, he gushed effusively about the artifacts he helped save.

“The Iraq museum is home to the single finest collection of Mesopotamian antiquities the world has ever seen: The Vase of Warka, the first naturalist depiction of human life in stone; The Mask of Warka, the first naturalist depiction of the human face; The Bassetki statue, the first known lost-wax method of copper casting,” Bogdanos told Time magazine. “Every step you take in the Iraq museum, you get to say ‘the first.’”

“I am a huge fan of his. [Back] when I started my legal career, before I worked in art law, he was someone I really admired,” Leila Amineddoleh, an art attorney who has worked with the DA’s office, told The Daily Beast. “He’s one of the reasons I’m doing what I’m doing today.”

But what made Bogdanos stand out, in addition to his smarts and expertise, was his approachability and work ethic, according to Amineddoleh.

“I think he’s just passionate about this subject matter, he really loves these objects, and he has this really strong drive to protect heritage for everyone,” Amineddoleh said.

The Manhattan DA’s foray into antiquities crime is driven both by Bogdanos and the office’s location.

“If you think about the jurisdiction they have, in Manhattan, it covers all the museums,” Amineddoleh said. “All the big auctions take place in New York.”

The DA’s office has mostly tackled the issue of repatriation rather than prosecution, according to the Times. Typically, this means returning cultural heritage looted in times of conflict to their home countries.

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Manhattan is also home to countless private collections, like the one raided in January, and galleries. In July 2017, for instance, prosecutors recovered a $1.2 million marble bull’s head from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It had been stolen from Lebanon and sold to a private collector, who loaned it to the museum, according to the DA’s office. (That investigation also started in the Eastern District, before being handed over to Vance’s office.)

Antiquities looting is usually the domain of federal courts. For instance, when Steinhardt’s comrade from The New Republic, Joseph Braude, was prosecuted for having illicitly obtained Iraqi seals in 2003, the case was handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York. Federal prosecutors also handled forfeiture of antiquities by the likes of the craft store giant Hobby Lobby, and even the seizure of antiquities found in a raid on the home of ISIS bigwig Abu Sayyaf. (The terrorist group is notorious for looting antiquities and selling them on the black market.)

But in December, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s office announced that it was launching its own antiquities unit, headed by Bogdanos.

While the antiquities unit is a new creation, the Manhattan DA’s office has long dabbled in the field. Over the last six years, they’ve repatriated thousands of antiquities, according to the DA’s office, with a total value of more than $150 million.

At a ceremony announcing the repatriation of three more Lebanese statues, however, Vance called the objects “priceless.”

“These aren’t just valuable collector’s items for show and display,” he said at a press conference in December. “These are actual celebrated remnants of an entire civilization’s culture and history.

“The volume and pace of our work in this area has increased to the point where we actually need a unit,” Vance said.

But as a senior trial attorney for the DA’s office, Bogdanos has a wide portfolio. Before tracking antiquities smuggling in Iraq, he handled the prosecution of rapper Sean Combs on weapons charges. He’s handled a slew of high-profile homicide cases, including that of a mother who killed her autistic son.

“He’s just a wonderful guy, really the best type of a certain kind of American masculinity,” said Ed Hayes, a defense attorney who met Bogdanos around the courthouse and has sparred with him in court.

Bogdanos is assertive and aggressive, and well prepared, according to Hayes. But he’s also a reasonable man, a straight talker who’s open to frank conversations.

The two men don’t agree on politics but bonded over a shared love for books and genuine care for one another. Bogdanos always checks in on Hayes’ health, offering to loan him his trainer, and asks about Hayes’ family.

“He’s just a terrific human being. It’s just his politics drive me nuts,” Hayes said.

But Bogdanos’ work on repatriating antiquities to countries like Iraq, where he got his start investigating terrorist financing, is a reflection of his character, according to the defense attorney.

“One of the reasons he works so hard on that is that the Iraqis have made tremendous sacrifices [against ISIS],” Hayes explained. “It’s not like we’re doing them a favor. We owe them.”