Wednesday 10 June 2009

Washington Collectors' Rights Lawyer: Stolen Articles a "strange case"

Over on the blog of Cultural Property Observer (Bailey and Ehrenberg lawyer Peter Tompa) is a post made on Tuesday (so apparently a day after my own) called “The Strange Case of the Sisto Collection”. Personally, as my own account of the topic indicates, I see nothing "strange" about it at all; it was another example of a US private collection of portable antiquities, antiques and art objects containing items of questionable provenance and exported from the source country in dubious circumstances, like probably countless others.

The former president of the ACCG however puts a collectors’ spin on the tale:
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
Reference to the material I quoted makes it clear that Mr Sisto’s son Joseph was far from ignorant in these matters and was quite certain two years earlier what his father should have done with the objects illegally obtained by the grandfather. This is the reason the police were involved after the collector’s death, and why I think Joseph Sisto should be commended.

Not so Cultural Property Observer, who continues “It is unclear why exactly why the FBI concluded that 1,600 items of some 3,500 found in the home were "stolen."….” [the inverted commas are Cultural Property Observer's ]. It seems he has not given adequate attention to the FBI press release of June 8th. There he would have learnt:
Members of the FBI’s Art Crime Team (ACT) then took possession of over 3,500 items and began the exhaustive process of trying to identify and authenticate each one. Investigators worked closely with the Italian Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage and the Italian Ministry for Cultural Assets and Activities, whose assistance was invaluable to this process.
The objects were apparently laboriously checked against records of previous art thefts in Italy, as a result of which FBI investigators came to believe “that the elder Sisto obtained the artifacts by various means, primarily from third parties who would loot private collections for personal gain”. The articles that are being sent back to Italy had been stolen from other collections.

So this has nothing to do with Italian export licencing legislation (the 2000 objects not identified as resulting from thefts in Italy were not returned to Italy, even though they too it seems had been illegally exported). Cultural Property Observer asks rhetorically:
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."
Well, in fact the information is available, and Cultural Property Observer's remarks are no less than an unjustied slight on the FBI and the Italian authorities. The allegation is thus another in the series of conspiracy theories from the Tompa/ACCG stable about "innocent" collectors being the "victims" of oppressive and ignoble authorities.

At the end of his blog post, Cultural Property Observer sneers:
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?
Instead, it seems that the search will be on for the collectors from whom the objects were initially stolen, or the heirs of the victims.

The codes of ethics of even coin dealers do not condone hanging on to, still less trading in, artifacts from anyone’s "beloved collection" if it turns out that they had been acquired as a result of theft from other owners and collections. It is odd to witness a US collector (and a lawyer to boot) who seems uneasy about these items going back from a US private collection to where they were stolen from. Question: in the eyes of US collectors, do “collectors rights” somehow not apply when the owner of cultural property is a foreign one and it is a US citizen who has got his hands on it? Cultural Property Observer's treatment of the Sisto collection investigation as a "strange case" implies he sees US law enforcement agencies colluding like the undercover agents of "foreign governments" which Mr Tompa apparently imagines exist.

Photo: FBI black helicopter - if you are a portable antiquity collector and not yet a member of the ACCG, they could be coming after YOU next!


Cultural Property Observer said...

Particularly in light of the NPR story posted on your blog and with it your subsequent recognition that ‘the origins of the material seems more complex than originally reported,” I would request that you delete this obnoxious post. I find you and your continuing ad hominem attacks against me and anyone who disagrees with you utterly despicable. I would also thank you to keep my law firm out of this. My blog is a private venture of my own personal opinions. If you think it relevant to mention my law firm every time you make an unkind reference to me, please provide me with the name of your current employer so I might return the favor.


Peter Tompa

Paul Barford said...

"Despicable" eh? Sticks and stones, I've been called worse.

Firstly, You posted your opinion on your blog; I comment on mine on what you wrote there (you are not above commenting on my opinions most disparagingly on yours after all). I think my post makes a perfectly valid point about your reaction to this story, which I suggest is revealing of another facet of the collector mindset.

If you don’t want your views being read and discussed and interpreted by those who do not necessarily agree with you, then why post them where people can read them? At least in discussing your views, I try always to provide a link to them so the reader can visit your blog and compare what I say with the original text (it is of course extremely rare for you and your ACCG pals to do the same when discussing mine).

In your post, you make some accusation against the FBI investigators which is indefensible(and actually, in itself is “obnoxious”). You make some similar accusation against the Italian authorities without checking what it was you were writing about. I see from your "addendum" that you now acknowledge that it really was about sending back to Italy objects which had been stolen from collections (which is what I had said in my blog post dated a day earlier than your own). Your original post was based on the depiction of the whole matter as some twisted ill-willed conspiracy between the FBI and the Italians to deprive US collectors of their property. Although you have edited it and added an addendum, it still does.

[But I see you have also added an insulting comment about Joseph Sisto being “indoctrinated”, as if he has no mind or opinion of his own, why?]

Secondly, I have read what I wrote again, and really cannot see why you say it is an “argumentum ad hominem”, for I quite clearly point out why I do not agree with your assessment of the Sisto case.

Whether or not you think the way I write is “obnoxious” is neither here nor there. I am a simple man and say what I think. Nobody makes anyone read it. David Gill and Nathan Elkins are the polite ones, that does not stop you and your ACCG pals being extremely rude and obnoxious about all three of us in equal measure. Since I do not expect that will change, I’d say you only have yourselves to blame for the way some people, frustrated in trying to talk reason to you (plural) and meeting such reaction, treat you and the various arguments used to maintain the no-questions-asked status quo in collecting, of which your post on CPO is a part.

Thirdly, when I say that the story is “more complex than originally reported”, I certainly do not mean that I think that your Italian cherry picking conspiracy theory is correct (take another look at the two versions, look at the context and think “sensitivity”; work it out for yourself what I meant).

You ask me to not mention where you work. But then you frequently represent yourself as a collectors’ rights lawyer, so what’s the problem? I started doing this as a reaction to the fact that you cannot seem to mention certain names without prefixing them with the words “SAFE associated blogger” (or using the word “archaeologist” as though it was some kind of insult). Annoying, isn’t it? As I said, if you treat other people and their opinions, arguments and work like s**t, then it would surely be unreasonable to expect all of them to treat you any differently all the time.

please provide me with the name of your current employer so I might return the favor .But Mr Tompa, you have already told your readers that people like me must be secret undercover agents of influence of “a foreign government”. You really do not expect me to reveal the identity of my “foreign paymasters” do you?

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