The FBI Returns pre-Columbian Antiquities

Pre-Colombian pieces found in retirement community head homeOn Tuesday the FBI announced it was returning 150 pre-Columbian artifacts which had been smuggled out of Peru and Ecuador.  The objects were found in the home of a recently deceased man, who had apparently been a collector of the antiquities. 

The 153 pieces of jewelry as well as pottery, baskets, sculptures and figurines were found last April in the home of a man after he died in his retirement community in Avon Park, Florida, according to the bureau’s Miami field office.
Experts indicated that the artifacts, presented in a Miami ceremony to representatives of the Peru and Ecuador governments, were between 500 and 3,200 years old, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said.
The FBI teamed up with specialists from Florida International University who determined that 141 of the pieces originated in what is present-day Peru, and the other 12 came from neighboring Ecuador.
“These artifacts represent the cultural heritage of Peru and Ecuador. They can never be replaced and should be on display for many to see, not locked away,” said the FBI’s chief agent in Miami, John Gillies.
“We are honored to return these items to their rightful owners,” Gillies added.

These announcements have become almost routine, with an estimated 2,600 items recovered just since 2004.  

  1. AFP: FBI returns smuggled artifacts to Peru, Ecuador, Dec. 1, 2009.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

The FBI’s Art Crime Team

Ulrich Boser has written a piece on the FBI Art Crime Team for the recent edition of the US News and World Report; it will also likely be a popular citation for law students composing student notes on art theft and cultural property crime for the next few years.  The piece discusses the work of the FBI, and how the special art unit was instituted after the 2003 Iraq invasion.  For contrast, consider that Italy’s Carabinieri has had a special Art Squad for 40 years.

The piece focuses on the reasons for art theft, and how the FBI has worked to combat these thefts.  One of the most interesting recoveries was the theft of North Carolina’s Bill of Rights:

During the final days of the Civil War, Union Army soldiers stole North Carolina’s Bill of Rights out of the state Capitol. Commissioned by President George Washington, the document was one of only 14 copies created after Congress proposed the first amendments, and for more than 140 years, it remained missing. Then, in 2003, two antiques dealers tried to peddle the work for $4 million. A millionaire philanthropist showed interest in the document, claiming that he would buy the artifact on behalf of Philadelphia’s Constitution Center. But the philanthropist was actually an undercover FBI agent, and investigators seized the document. “It was like touching history,” one agent said.

It is an interesting piece, but one that has been written many times, without adding much new for those like me who read these kinds of pieces. 

I found the comments of Mark Durney, who blogs at Art Theft Central much more interesting.  It seems Durney was interviewed for Boser’s piece, but his comments didn’t make the final cut.  That’s a shame, because Durney had a lot of interesting things to say about why many art crimes go unreported; much of which has not been discussed before.  As Durney argued with respect to attracting traveling exhibitions, 

. . .  I described how museums and cultural institutions are often wary of reporting thefts as it can discourage other institutions and individuals from loaning works of art for special exhibitions – the cash cow for many institutions. To confirm my suspicions that special exhibitions are a source of considerable income I examined the 2006-2007 financial reports of several high-profile art museums. For example, the Philadelphia Museum of Art reported an income of $1,839,449 from special exhibitions. This amounted to a shade over 29% of the museum’s program service revenue ($6,281,637 – program service revenue is revenue from admissions, special exhibition ticket sales, concession sales etc., BUT not membership dues or government grants – usually the largest portions of an institution’s total revenue). Another institution, the Wadsworth Atheneum reported that in 2007 its income from special exhibitions was more than double its income from regular admissions ($842,218 versus $401,527 respectively). Although special exhibitions can be great sources of income for museums, they are also instrumental in sustaining and attracting donors and grants.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

These things are three-times cursed

That’s what Joseph Sisto said to his father with respect to the 3,500 objects in the elder Sisto’s Illinois home according to Rosalind Bentley in a piece in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on Sunday. 

These things are three-times cursed, Sisto, of Duluth, would tell his father, John. Cursed once because they were stolen, cursed twice because they were smuggled, and cursed thrice because concealing the cache in their home had robbed the family of its peace of mind.

And there are more details on how the objects came from Italy to the United States.  I think one curious thing to pick up on here, are all the crates of antiquities and other objects which were shipped from Italy.  Customs agents in both the United States and Italy were unable to detect these objects which were certainly illegally exported, and some were perhaps stolen.  I’m left wondering how many crates of objects are still being shipped which are undetected.  And I don’t think its a case of authorities not taking this problem seriously, or a lack of legal restrictions; rather I think there are limits to what we can reasonably expect of law enforcement and customs agents. 

Collectibles and old texts fascinated the elder Sisto. By the time Joseph was an adolescent, his father was taking him on regular trips to Italy to visit family. The trips were often more drudgery for Joseph than pleasure. Italian summers were interminably hot, and Joseph and his dad would spend hours looking for rare books and manuscripts in musty old castles and homes in the country. Often, his father would either leave with purchased packages or he’d wind up buying the entire contents of the place.

Months after the Italian visits, crates would arrive at the brick bungalow in Berwyn. Scores of crates, almost never just one or two. That’s when the real work began. Joseph, his younger brother and his father would spend every minute of their spare time unloading dirty, messy crates. Instead of playing softball outside with friends or just hanging out, Joseph and his brother had to stay inside and catalogue the contents. But instead of selling the items on the black market (which the FBI said had been part of an original plan), John Sisto kept almost everything.

He converted the second floor of the bungalow into a veritable archive. He had dozens of bookshelves installed. He filled the attic. Then he learned how to read and translate Latin to better appreciate what was in his trove. He quietly and cautiously sought out curators to learn how to properly preserve ancient documents, always taking his absolute worst and most insignificant piece for the consultation so as not to arouse suspicion, Sisto said.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

1,600 Objects Bound for Italy

A detail of a manuscript from 1745 was on display at a press conference at the Chicago FBI offices during a briefing on the the recently concluded investigation into the discovery of thousands of artifacts, antiquities, and books at a Berwyn residence.There were some terrific images released yesterday at the FBI press conference announcing the return of 1,600 objects found in John Sisto’s home when he died in 2007. He had amassed thousands of documents and objects, all stored in his Berwyn, Illinois home.

Of the 3,500 objects found in Sisto’s home when he died in 2007, the FBI has determined that 1,600 of them were stolen or illegally exported from Italy and must be returned. Despite the estimated value of the objects, perhaps as much as $10 million, there will be no prosecution in Illinois, though perhaps some Italian prosecutions may take place. The staggering fact is the owners of the nearly 2,000 other objects is unknown, and will be returned to the family.

Among the items to be returned are religious relics, manuscripts written by Mussolini, figurines from the 4th Century B.C., letters written by popes, and other objects.

In a Chicago Tribune piece by Margaret Ramirez and Robert Mitchum, they note these objects had become a point of contention with Sisto’s son:

In the mid-2000s, Joseph Sisto learned that many of the items were likely illegal and confronted his father, telling them that the artifacts should be returned to Italy.

But his father refused, provoking a family dispute that separated him from his father during the final years of his life, he said.

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.

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.

The FBI believes many of the objects were taken from the Bari region of Italy, where John Sisto was born. Paul Barford wonders if perhaps this may become an increasing trend if “many children of today’s no-questions-asked accumulators of archaeological artefacts (not to mention dealers) will be faced with similar dilemmas.” One can’t help but see parallels with the sale of William Kingsland’s art collection, who died in 2006, and it was revealed that many of the works found in his home had been stolen.

One wonders as well how he came to acquire these objects; as surely Sisto didn’t steal all of these objects himself. Why was it possible for him to acquire them. The FBI speculates that the objects may have been shipped to the U.S. between 1960 and 1982 by Sisto’s father, who was still living in Italy. Perhaps the objects were taken from private collections or elsewhere.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Returning, Recovering and Punishing


Three stories caught my eye this morning:

First, Police in Sao Paulo have recovered a Pablo Picasso print that was stolen back in June (mentioned earlier here). The police have already recovered three other works. Details are thin, but what often takes place in these kinds of recoveries is thieves or their agents will offer to sell a portion of a group of stolen works, holding the remaining works as a kind of collateral against possible arrest.

Second, the FBI in its continuing investigation into the William M.V. Kingsland collection is trying to track down the owners of 300 works. This work, Riders in a Landscape by Henry Aiken (~1840) is included in the collection. You can read more about the rather bizarre Kingsland collection here. If you have any information on the Kingsland collection, you can contact FBI Agent Wynne at 7182867302, or by email at James.Wynne “at” ic.fbi.gov.

Finally, in the Mardirosian trial, Federal District Court Judge Mark Wolf dismissed a stolen transportation charge as the NSPA does not in his view apply to a transfer between Switzerland and England. He does still face a charge for possessing or concealing the stolen works though.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Stewart Gardner Resolution?


Is a resolution eminent in the largest art theft in history? Perhaps, with word this morning that a Boston grand jury is scheduled to hear evidence this week into the 1990 theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, estimated at between $300-500 million. One of the stolen works is the Concert by Vermeer.

Stephen Kurkjian of the Boston Globe has the story, in which he was given details of a subpoena from a former museum employee who worked there at the time.

The former worker said two FBI agents questioned him about his recollection of the theft several days ago and handed him a subpoena to testify before the grand jury in Boston tomorrow.

The agents told him they were gathering facts on the case and were hoping that the grand jury would “shake things up” in the long-stalled investigation, said the former worker, who asked not to be identified.

The agents did say that they were pursuing the possibility that the theft may have been carried out by three individuals – and not two as has long been publicly believed, the former employee said.

On Friday, a spokeswoman for US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan’s office declined to comment on the grand jury, stating that the office never confirms or denies the existence of such a session.

A spokeswoman for the Gardner Museum also declined comment.

The former museum employee read portions of the subpoena to the Globe and said it was signed by Brian T. Kelly, a veteran prosecutor in the US attorney’s office. Kelly has helped spearhead the federal investigation into and the crackdown of James “Whitey” Bulger’s criminal enterprise.

It is often said that a grand jury is both a sword and a shield. It protects the rights of criminal defendants, but also allows prosecutors to use their subpoena power to compel testimony. Whether a resolution will emerge remains to be seen, but right now there are more questions than answers, most notably: where are the paintings?

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com