Monday 8 June 2009

The Problems of Inheriting a No-questions-asked Collection

Collectors of portable antiquities assume that the chances of getting found out acquiring no-questions-asked illegal antiquities locked away behind the doors of their homes are remote. Several cases recently have shown that the computer networks that allow their purchase have in fact led law enforcement authorities to those doors. I think we will be seeing more of this in coming months and years.

Another mechanism that leads to the discovery of private ownership of illicit cultural property is when collectors die and their heirs have to deal with the accumulated items. Whether or not the original buyer asked the right questions when they acquired them, their heirs are forced to answer questions when they wish to dispose of them. A case of this is being reported from Chicago (Joseph Ruzich, 'Illegally acquired items' in Berwyn's hidden treasure to be returned to Italy: Stolen antiquities were in bungalow for decades' Chicago Tribune June 6, 2009; Mike Robinson, ‘Stolen artifacts being sent back to Italy’, Chicago tribune June 8th 2009; Margaret Ramirez and Robert Mitchum, 'FBI sending back stolen artifacts found in Berwyn', Chicago Tribune June 9, 2009). See also the FBI press release.

In March 2007, a collector and dealer of antiquities, books and antiques, Italian immigrant John A. Sisto died at the age of 78. When his two sons came to clear out his bungalow on South Elmwood Avenue in Berwyn, a suburb of Chicago, they found a hoard of some 3500 antiquities and antiques stacked away in boxes and stored around the house. It turns out that more than half of them could be shown to have been illegally obtained and illegally removed from Italy, and at a press conference on Monday they were displayed by the FBI and it was announced that the items, with an estimated value of $5 million and $10 million, will be returned to Italy later this week. Although the items were removed from Italy in violation of its cultural property laws, Rice said there would be no U.S. criminal prosecutions in connection with theft, transportation or possession of stolen artifacts. The ownership of the remaining 2,000 items could not be verified, so they were being returned to the Sisto family.

John Sisto was born in Bari, Italy, and emigrated to the US in 1958. Soon after this he began to receive items sent to him for sale in the collectables store he operated in Berwyn, and they seem to have been primarily sent by his father Giuseppe Sisto, a geography and history professor at the University of Bari. While some seem to have been bought legitimately at estate sales, the FBI indicate that many of the objects had come from thefts . These seemingly had been bought by Giuseppe from fences who had obtained them from thieves who had looted them from private collections (these are presumably those that were now being returned to Italy - presumably to the heirs of the owners). The illegally exported items most likely started to arrive in the early 1960s and continued to be shipped to Berwyn until the elder Sisto died in 1982. In addition to dealing in the items he received, Sisto began to collect them. There is no assurance that some of the stolen items weren't sold to US collectors, FBI spokesman Ross Rice said, "Whatever additional items were sent here, we wouldn't know". One wonders how many people bought goods from this shop without asking where the dealer had obtained them from.

Most of the items appear to have come from the Bari region in southern Italy. Objects in the collection include hundreds of Etruscan artifacts produced between 500 B.C. and 900 B.C., parchments and manuscripts, some with wax papal seals dating to the 12th century, and more than 1,000 books and documents written by kings and popes.

Mr Sisto's son, Joseph 48, who now lives in Duluth, Ga. was aware of his father's collection when he was growing up. In the mid-2000s, Joseph learnt that many of the items were likely illegal and confronted his father, saying that the artifacts should be returned to Italy. But his father refused, provoking a family dispute that separated the son from his father during the final years of his life. When his father died, Joseph Sisto asked Berwyn police to enter the home with him, knowing that the thousands of artifacts would need to be investigated by authorities. The subsequent investigation into these artefacts lasted two years. FBI officials worked with Italian authorities and determined the origins of the stolen artifacts. The cost of all this to the US taxpayer was not revealed.

But let us hear it for Mr Joseph Sisto, who knew the right thing to do, despite the pain it produced in the family after his father's death. So many collectors' heirs would presumably be tempted to just sell the stuff to whoever will buy it. It seems that in future many children of today's no-questions-asked accumulators of archaeological artefacts (not to mention dealers) will be faced with similar dilemmas.

Video here.


Paul Barford said...

"Berwyn Police Chief William Kushner recalled the incredible sight when he first entered the home in 2007. Kushner said the house was filled with hundreds of boxes, many piled 5 feet high and all labeled in Italian. Upstairs and in the attic, precious paintings covered the walls, protected by large sheets of cardboard refrigerator boxes. Immediately, Kushner knew he had to call the FBI art crimes unit. He ordered his officers not to touch anything. In his 33 years in law enforcement, Kushner said he had never seen anything like this."There was stuff all over the house in boxes. The most valuable stuff from the Vatican was on the second floor in the attic," Kushner said. "It just goes to show you, you never know what you'll find in a bungalow." The artifacts and documents date back as far as the 4th Century B.C. and include parchments and manuscripts from Pope Paul III in the 1500s and Pope Paul V in the 1600s. A collection of small statues, known as the Canosa artifacts, is believed to have been taken from an Italian chapel where the objects were offered as devotions to God. Letters from Kings Charles V from 1534 and Ferdinand II from 1847 also were included."

Paul Barford said...

For a lawyer, Peter Tompa seems pretty unclear WHY some objects were returned to Italy and others not.

This has nothing to do with the collectors' bugbear of "restrictive cultural property laws" but these items are dcumented as having been stolen from various other collections in the past. The other items remain in the USA even though they too were illegally exported from Italy.

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