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Recovered Italian Artifacts Headed Home

4th Century B.C. vase.
A 4th century B.C. pottery jar from Canosa in Southern Italy

In March 2007, members of the Berwyn, Illinois Police Department entered the home of a recently deceased man at the request of his son. What they found in that small house in a Chicago suburb eventually reverberated nearly 5,000 miles away: the late owner of the home—John Sisto—had been haphazardly storing more than 3,500 suspected antiquities from Italy in boxes, in piles on the floor, and on bookshelves.

On Monday, some of those items were on public display for the first time in years during a press conference with our partners—when Special Agent in Charge Robert Grant of our Chicago office announced that approximately 1,600 of them would be returned to Italian authorities.

Bountiful discovery. When Berwyn police discovered the treasure trove of what appeared to be historical items—like books, parchments, documents, and works of art—they contacted the Chicago FBI for assistance in identifying the items. That’s when members of our Art Crime Team began an investigation, working closely with the Berwyn police, our Legal Attaché in Rome, the Italian Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, and the Italian Ministry for Cultural Assets and Activities.
17th century manuscript
One of hundreds of manuscripts—this one published in 1617—recovered from the home of John Sisto
Protecting Indian Treasures Our Art Crime Team figured prominently in another case this week: the two-year FBI/Bureau of Land Management investigation into the sale of stolen Native American artifacts announced yesterday in Salt Lake City, Utah. The undercover operation targeted a network of individuals allegedly involved in the excavation, purchase, and exchange of artifacts illegally taken from public and Indian lands. The items included decorated Anasazi pottery, an assortment of burial and ceremonial masks, a buffalo headdress, and sandals associated with Native American burials. The 12 indictments unsealed in federal court Wednesday morning charged two dozen people in Utah, New Mexico and Colorado with violations of the Archeological Resources Protection Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. A short time later, FBI and Bureau of Land Management agents, U.S. Marshals, and state and local law enforcement partners simultaneously arrested 23 people and served a number of search warrants. This operation is the nation’s largest investigation to date of archeological and cultural artifacts taken from public and Native American lands. Details

After moving the artifacts to our Chicago office, investigators photographed and catalogued each item. Pictures were sent to subject matter experts in Italy, who identified the items as having come from the Bari region of Italy. These experts traveled to the U.S. twice for a close-up look at the rest of the inventory. After conferring with various churches, archives, libraries, and owners of private collections in Italy, they determined that about 1,600 of the items had been stolen and should be returned.

Included among the items were:

  • 380 manuscripts and parchments, including a 1662 doctoral diploma and writings by kings, emperors, and popes;
  • 1,000 books dating from the 17th and18th centuries;
  • A book preface written by Benito Mussolini; and
  • Religious artifacts and relics, including a shoe worn by a clergyman and about 100 terra cotta heads given as offerings to the Roman Catholic Church.

How did John Sisto amass such a collection? We think that in most instances the items were secretly shipped to Sisto from his father—an Italian citizen living in Italy—from  the early 1960s until the older man’s death in 1982. John Sisto was probably instructed by his father to sell the items at the antique shop he was running at the time, but he didn’t have much luck. John Sisto also made an attempt to get various museums and libraries interested in his collection, but that didn’t pan out either, so he simply stored most of the items in his home.

It appeared that Sisto, who spent a great deal of his time translating and studying the various manuscripts and parchments, was more interested in the historical significance of the items than their monetary value.

17th century doctoral diploma
A 17th century handwritten doctoral diploma

Because the principals in this case are deceased, no charges will be filed in the United States. Nonetheless, we are pleased that these priceless artifacts will be returning home to their historical birthplace, thanks to the joint efforts of the Berwyn Police Department, Italian authorities, our field office in Chicago, and the family of John Sisto. Grazie e buona fortuna.

Chicago press release
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