1,600 antiquities for Italy

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The secret collection John Sisto kept in his Berwyn bungalow had letters written by kings, Vatican documents penned by Catholic popes and even a handwritten book preface by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

In all, federal officials found an astounding treasure-trove of about 3,500 ancient artifacts, religious relics, rare manuscripts and other historic items after Sisto's death in March 2007.

Federal officials said Monday that the results of a two-year investigation determined that 1,600 of those items were stolen from Italy and shipped to the U.S. to be sold. The items, with an estimated value of $5 million and $10 million, will be returned to Italy later this week, according to FBI spokesman Ross Rice.

The ownership of the remaining 2,000 items could not be verified, so they were being returned to the Sisto family.

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.

Sisto's son Joseph said he was aware of his father's large collection of artifacts when he was growing up. John Sisto's father, Giuseppe, would travel Europe and buy the items in estate sales, then ship them overseas in "hundreds of crates" for his son to sell.

But Joseph Sisto said his father became attached to the items and kept them in his home rather than turn the collection for a profit.

"He fell in love with it to be honest," said Joseph Sisto, 48, who lives in Duluth, Ga. "He thought it was beautiful. He thought it was history."

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.

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.

During the two-year probe, FBI officials worked with Italian authorities and determined the origins of the stolen artifacts came from the Bari region of Italy, where John Sisto was born.

On Monday, Joseph Sisto said he was happy that the artifacts would be returned to Italy to be studied and displayed in museums.

"It's the right thing to do," Joseph Sisto said. "It's history undiscovered. It shouldn't be in the hands of one man."

maramirez@tribune.com

rmitchum@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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