Thursday 11 June 2009

More "strange" suggestions from Washington concerning the Sisto case

I reported here earlier (The Problems of Inheriting a No-questions-asked Collection), on investigations of some of the objects from the collection of collectables dealer John A. Sisto in Chicago. It transpired that a number of them were identified as having been stolen in Italy a number of years ago, and accordingly these items were now being returned to that country. The day after I wrote about it commending Mr Sisto's son Joseph, lawyer Peter Tompa, of a Washington legal firm he’d apparently prefer me not to mention, made a bizarre post on his "cultural Property Observer" blog calling this a “strange case”. I examined this characterisation here, but now I see that there has appeared on his blog an even more bizarre contribution to the discussion ("Some Other Thoughts About the Materials from the Sisto Collection Repatriated to Italy") .

In this he relates: “a scholar and expert in the international trade in cultural artifacts provided me with the following thoughts on reviewing the list of materials repatriated from Italy…”. Funnily enough though, he does not name this benefactor who has stepped in like a fairy godmother to declare that “everything I see here is virtually useless junk”. The unnamed expert suggests that "it is truly inconceivable that all but the smallest fraction of this material is of any importance at all [...] I think the Sisto family is probably lucky to have gotten rid of all this". That is not very respectful to the memory of the dead man who spent the best part of his life collecting, looking after and studying it.

Junk or not, does the anonymous "expert in international trade in cultural artefacts" believe that if they were stolen, an attempt should be made to return them to the collections they were stolen from? I think this is an important point. His statements as reported by Peter Tompa seem to suggest that he considers this "worthless junk” should stay in the USA, no matter what its status because the Italians "already have a lot of stuff like this". I hope that is not the case.

Like Mr Tompa, the anonymous expert who sees nothing of value here apparently has difficulty believing that the items investigated by the FBI are stolen, indeed they even suggest that one possibility is that this could all have been “thrown out from libraries” and not stolen at all. In addition, Mr Tompa apparently believes (for some reason which he does not divulge) that it is simply impossible that the Italian police can possibly still find any records concerning unsolved cases of thefts of antiques which took place in Italy before 1982.

Mr Tompa in particular seems to be of the opinion that instead of this being a case of the US fulfilling its international obligations, there is much more to this than meets the eye and that the whole affair is some kind of international conspiracy and that the Italian authorities are simply making all this up to wrest some more cratefulls of artefacts from innocent US collectors and their families (even if they are really rubbish) and the FBI is colluding with them, and thus lying to the American people. Joseph Sisto is going along with this nefarious plan, Tompa states on his blog, because he has been "indoctrinated" when he was a student. I wonder what precisely Mr Tompa has against "the Italians", the FBI or people with an education in cultural anthropology.

I am also totally at a loss to understand Mr Tompa's friend's statment that: "if no real expert in America was asked to go through this material, a reputable book or manuscript dealer, and the FBI relied only on the Italians on the question of importance of possible theft; this is a major scandal". I am not sure who he thinks should be informing the US authorities what objects were stolen in Italy, or why he does not think this IS the job of the Italian law enforcement officers. After all, the case notes would be in Italy, not Chicago. It seems furthermore that this unnamed expert is suggesting that there is in some way a differentiation between thefts which are of "importance" and those which are not. (I wonder if they have ever had their house burgled or car stolen?) If some of the objects in the Sisto collection are stolen, they are stolen, and I really find this expert's line of reasoning difficult to follow. It seemingly makes a mockery of even the most skeletal 'codes of ethics' of antiques dealers all over the world who, whatever else, deny that they would ever handle stolen goods. No wonder the person Tompa cites wishes to remain anonymous.

I ask again, do such comments indicate that deep down, US collectors think that, once they have their hands on some property illegally taken from other owners, they should be allowed to keep it if the original owners were foreigners? Especially if (as this astonishing outburst seems to suggest) they are from Italy, who’ve got lots (too much) of it anyway and the stolen items are only of "minor importance"?


David Gill said...

Could the "expert" have an interest in archaeological material from the Americas? Does this "expert" understand the archaeology of Italy? What is the expertise of this individual?

Paul Barford said...

Who knows David? Mr Tompa is very coy about saying who his friend is. He seems mostly interested in the manuscripts and books which might give a clue...

Paul Barford said...

Or "she" of course...

Marcus Preen said...

At about 2.00 am one dark night back in about 1955 my father caught our neighbour, Charlie Fields, wheeling our coal away in our wheelbarrow.

Charlie was momentarily at a loss for words but then he hissed "You've never been any good Bob Preen, you or your father before you" and off he trundled.....

Mr Tompa and his associates often put me in mind of that incident.

Nathan Elkins said...

All very odd indeed. T

he dismissal of everything as "junk" also betrays the "expert's" misunderstanding of the issues. The importance of an object for the understanding of the ancient world does not lay in the object itself, but often in that object's relationship with other objects: archaeological context. This is what looting, promptedby indiscriminate demand, destroys. There is no comprehension of archaeology or historical sciences represented in these arguments.

He/she also glosses over the fact that several of the objects were documented as stolen from Italian collections.

An odd case of defending the indefensible.

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