Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Strange Case of the Sisto Collection

The FBI has repatriated to Italy a large collection of antiques and antiquities found in the home of John Sisto, a deceased Italian immigrant from Bari. Mr. Sisto's heirs apparently did not know what to do with the trove. They called the police, who were only too happy to turn it over to Italian cultural authorities. See: http://chicago.fbi.gov/pressrel/2009/cg060809.htm

It's unclear from the press release exactly why the FBI concluded that 1,600 items of some 3,500 found in the home were "stolen." The Chicago Tribune reports that Mr. Sisto received the artifacts from his own father-- a University Professor-- who is said to have purchased the items at estate sales in Italy. See:

Italy evidently requires export licenses for artifacts over 50 years old. However, US authorities only enforce Italy's export controls on ancient artifacts (excluding coins) and then have only done so since 1999. Those restrictions cannot relate to any of these artifacts. The FBI Press Release suggests that Mr. Sisto stopped receiving shipments from Italy after his own father died in 1982.

Is this really a case of "stolen property" or more of one of Italian authorities "cherry picking" artifacts of cultural interest for repatriation? Without more information, we will never know whether the FBI acceded to Italy's "guilty until proven innocent" mentality or whether some real evidence was provided that the material was actually "stolen." See: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/07/weekinreview/07donadio.html?_r=2&ref=weekinreview ("In Italy, the general assumption is that someone is guilty until proven innocent. Trials — in the press and in the courts — are more often about defending personal honor than establishing facts, which are easily manipulated. ").

Hopefully, at a minimum, Mr. Sisto's son will keep tabs on what Italian authorities actually do with his deceased father's beloved collection. Wouldn't it be a shame if the trove just ended up in storage somewhere or, even worse, if it was displayed as a "trophy" in Italy's ongoing campaign to repatriate artifacts?

Addendum: At my request, the FBI Press office kindly provided me with some additional information. This is my understanding from our discussion.

1. The investigation started because John Sisto's son contacted the police. Sisto's son indicated that his deceased father told him that his own father had sent him stolen material. [The FBI Press Release does not directly speak to this issue. The Chicago Tribune only states, "Around 2005 (this text as originally published has been corrected), Joseph Sisto learned that many of the items were likely illegal and confronted his father, telling them that the artifacts should be returned to Italy." There is of course a difference under U.S. law between an artifact being "illegal" because it was "illegally exported" and being "illegal" because it was "stolen." The former is irrelevant. The latter is actionable.]

2. The FBI relied on Italian cultural officials to examine the material and decide what was stolen and what was not. The FBI did not conduct an independent investigation (nor was it in a position to do so), but rather relied heavily on the Italians. The Italians indicated that the antiquities were state property under their 1909 law and that the many manuscripts and books repatriated were stolen in the traditional sense from libraries, etc. The Italians also indicated that the material should be returned because it was exported illegally, which, of course, is nonsense, at least under U.S. law during the relevant time period.

Overall, I remain a bit dubious that Italy's determinations that the material was "stolen" would really stand up in a court of law in a contested case. Antiquities remain widely collected in Italy itself and it could be demonstrated that Italy's antiquities laws were not really enforced in the period when the items came to America (the 1960's to 1982). As for the books and manuscripts, I suppose there could be good enough records of thefts in the 1960's to 1982 to trace the artifacts, but I would be a bit surprised if that were actually the case. In any event, the Sisto family asked for the FBI's help in sorting this out and they received the assistance they requested.

Addendum 2: The following NPR story was brought to my attention: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=105218287

Apparently, the collector's son was indoctrinated as an anthropology student about the UNESCO Convention. That presumably explains why he considered the items which -- at least according to the articles seem to have been bought from legitimate sources-- to be "stolen":

"Sisto [the son of the deceased collector] eventually realized many of the antiquities had been smuggled out of Italy. Later, when he was getting a degree in cultural anthropology, he says, he learned about the UNESCO treaty that says if something is considered a cultural artifact, it should be returned to its country of origin."

The article also notes the son's admiration for his father's self-taught knowledge of history:

"Amazing for a man who ... never went to college. He was completely self-taught," Sisto says. "He learned even how to translate ancient Latin, which was in script Latin, which almost nobody knows how to read, and he learned how to do that all by himself until he became an expert in the 1970s and '80s and ... universities started calling him asking him for help."

Sisto says that in the final years of his life, his father did not want to sell his collection.
"He wanted to document it and spent years and years translating over 1,100 ancient manuscripts," he says. "And the translations are included along with the material that the FBI has seized and is returning to Italy."

The son evidently believes his father's collection will be well cared for in Italy. Let's hope so, but as noted elsewhere on this blog, Italy has an embarrassment of cultural riches and its record in caring for all in its possession is not a very good one.

1 comment:

Joseph Sisto said...

Dear Sir;

I am replying to "the strange case" posted in June of 2009. I have, in fact, tracked the location of the majority of the collection that has been returned to Italy, and is on display in a museum in Bari, and held in a Vatican Library repository. I have corresponded with the curators of each, and received the photographic evidence thereof.
Thank you for your blog on this date.