Friday, October 30, 2009

Does U.S. Law Enforcement Apply Our Law or Foreign Law?

I've been told by government officials that U.S. law enforcement "does not apply foreign law," but only applies "our law," i.e. the National Stolen Property Act (as construed by a number of courts) or import restrictions under the Cultural Property Implementation Act.

If so, I find the following information gleaned from Primo Magazine's recent interview with an FBI agent who worked on the Sisto case to be troubling. (For more about the Sisto case, see and

According to [FBI Special Agent] Mondini, Michael [Sisto] had hoped to sell part of the collection [of his father John] to fund his children's college education.

"He wanted to make sure all the items were legally obtained," said Mondini. "FBI Agents searched the house and took inventory. If Italian authorities could prove his father's items were stolen, then he would allow the Italians to take them back. He would not fight it."

The FBI dd not remove the material at the home at first. "It was a big task because of so many items," says Mondini. "We photographed 400 manuscripts and religous books. Many had stamps on them from specific libraries, private collections and archives. There were papal seals and decrees in Old Latin. Italian authorities reviewed them and agreed that the sample material would never had been allowed to leave Italy. These conclusions were made by three experts on religious history, two of whom were priests."

After more were photographed, Italian authorities claimed all were historically valuable and illegally obtained. The entire collection was seized by the FBI. Objects wrapped in wax paper were boxed for a new home inside two empty offices at regional headquarters in Chicago.

Mondini admits much of Sisto's collection was illegal because of the simple fact they left Italy without official authorization. Italian law sets a high bar and permission to trade and export artifacts, even inside Italy itself, is rarely if ever given.

Was the FBI following U.S. law or Italian law in seizing the items? Did the F.B.I. merely let the Italians "cherry pick" what they deemed "culturally significant" from the collection?

And on a more basic human level, did our government's premier law enforcement agency effectively take advantage of a grieving son who apparently never consulted a lawyer as to the legality of the FBI's actions just to please the cultural bureaucracy of a friendly foreign nation?

For more about Primo Magazine, see Primo interviewed Special Agent Mondini for an article entitled, "Father's Legacy, Brother's Dispute: The Case of John Sisto. That article can be found in the September-October 2009 issue of the Magazine at page 30. The Magazine also includes my own views about the Sisto case and Italy's approach to repatriation issues.

1 comment:

Bill Donovan said...

Interesting post Peter. Smells funny when the FBI is working with foreign officials, and not using any US law - but instead enforcing Italian law.