Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2010 Issue

Library of Chicago Man Who Imported Stolen and Illegal Works Sold

Sistobooks

Some of the Sisto books sold at the Leslie Hindman auction.


By Michael Stillman

The library of a bizarrely, and not always legally, acquired collection of books, ephemera and art was sold at Leslie Hindman's Auction in Chicago on March 16. FBI investigators estimated the collection had a value of $10 million, though, as Mary Williams of Leslie Hindman Auctioneers points out, "the items do not have an actual value because they would never have been sold." Items which are "hot," particularly ones that are also unique, are essentially unsalable. Those offered by Hindman's auction were the ones for which no legal claims were made.

This story goes back to the 1960s and a nondescript modest home in the Chicago suburb of Berwyn, Illinois. John Sisto, a naturalized American citizen, operated a small, collectibles store near his home. Sometime in the early 1960s, his father, Giuseppe Sisto, began shipping him antiquities from Italy. Where the father obtained these items is not clear, though it certainly appears many were stolen and were also subject to laws which prohibited their removal from the country. It seems most likely that Giuseppe believed he was supporting his son's business, but apparently John was keeping most of the items he received. He became an obsessive collector. It also appears that John made some trips to Italy himself and brought back even more goods.

In 1982, Giuseppe Sisto died. That would have shut off his son's primary source of material though he may still have found some on his own. Meanwhile, as the years went on, John became more and more isolated. He learned how to translate ancient Latin documents and became a sought after expert on Italian antiquities. However, he also became more alienated from his family. The last ten years of his life he had little contact with his son, Joseph, after the latter became suspicious about the source of his great collection. John Sisto died in 2007, leaving no instructions for his collection. Considering its origin, how could he? He loved his books and artifacts with a passion, but the circumstances of their origin made that a passion he could not share.

Once Joseph began sorting through his father's material after John's death, he quickly realized there could be problems. Rather than attempting to sell the material, he called the police. Thus began an extensive and thorough evaluation, piece by piece, of the material in John Sisto's collection. The FBI's Art Crime Team conducted the investigation, with assistance from the Italian Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, and the Italian Ministry for Cultural Assets and Archives. Ultimately, the issue of theft became secondary in the case as so many of the items were protected by Italian cultural heritage laws from being removed from the country in the first place. Besides which, returning them to the appropriate institutions and private collections was more important than proving a crime as the only two potential subjects for a criminal prosecution were dead.

Around 1,600 items from the Sisto collection were repatriated to Italy. Naturally, these included the most valuable ones. According to the FBI, the collection included, "parchments and manuscripts, many with papal wax seals and some dating to the 1100's; several hundred Etruscan artifacts, many dating to 500 - 900 B.C.; over 1,000 books, some handwritten, dating to the 1700's; and numerous religious and political artifacts, including letters written by former kings, popes and other members of the Roman Catholic Church." That still left around 2,000 items which were returned to the Sisto estate. Included in the Hindman sale were books from Mr. Sisto's library. These were not the really ancient and extremely valuable works of art and handwritten letters and manuscripts. They were primarily books, and while old, not ancient, that is, mostly 18th and 19th century printings. They carried auction expectations in three figures, not six or seven.

Most of the books were sold in combined lots of ten or more organized by subject, such as medicine, law, or a favorite of Sisto's, dictionaries. The highest price for an individual item went for a 1765 edition of Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica (31 volumes), $1,800 at the hammer (a nice bump on the $100-$200 estimate). All told, the Sisto items sold for a hammer price of $29,315.

Mary Williams reported that the Sisto items generated a lot of interest on the phones and online, including "quite a few new bidders that we have not dealt with in the past from abroad." Several items were purchased by a German bookseller. There were also numerous institutions that previewed the Sisto items and requested condition reports, and while Ms. Williams could only be certain of a couple of institutional buyers, there were likely more as many bid through agents. The material certainly proved popular enough as all but one of the approximately 75 Sisto items sold. It should be noted that these items were part of a larger auction, accounting for around 10% of the total sales by price.

While between the repatriated items and the library most of Sisto's collection has now been dispersed, there still remain some articles in the family's hands, primarily posters and decorative items.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>Collection of a Connoisseur:<br>History in Manuscript, Part 2<br>27 April 2021</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Ronald Reagan. Series of 37 letters to Senator George Murphy, and related material, 1968-90. £50,000 to £70,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Chaim Weizmann. Autograph letter signed, to General Sir Gilbert Clayton, 6 September 1918. £20,000 to £30,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Sir Winston Churchill. Autograph letter signed, to Pamela, Lady Lytton, 1942. £20,000 to $30,000.
    <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>Collection of a Connoisseur:<br>History in Manuscript, Part 2<br>27 April 2021</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Oscar Wilde. Five autograph letters signed, to Alsager Vian, 1887. £15,000 to £20,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Napoleon I. Letter signed to Admiral Ganteaume, ordering the invasion of England, 22 August 1805. £10,000 to £15,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Horatio, Viscount Nelson, and Emma Hamilton. Two autograph letter signed, to Catherine and George Matcham, 1805. £6,000 to £8,000.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Frances Palmer, <i>Battle of Buena Vista,</i> chromolithograph, New York, 1847. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, the earliest publication concerned solely with chocolate, first edition, Madrid, 1631. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Romans Bernard, <i>An Exact View of the Late Battle at Charlestown, June 17th, 1775,</i> engraving, 1776. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> <i>A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston,</i> English edition, London, 1770. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> William Soule, <i>Lodge of the Plains Indians,</i> albumen print, 1872. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Manuscript document to enforce New York’s “Agreement of Non-Importation” during the heyday of the Sons of Liberty, New York, 1769. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Clarence Mackenzie, <i>Drummer Boy of the 13th Regiment of Brooklyn,</i> salt print with applied color, 1861. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Moses Lopez, <i>A Lunar Calendar,</i> first Jewish calendar published in America, Newport, RI, 1806. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b><br>The Book of Mormon, first edition, Palmyra, 1830. $30,000 to $40,000.
  • <center><b>Doyle<br>Stage & Screen<br>Auction April 28</b>
    <b>Doyle, Stage & Screen:</b> Lot 12. OKLAHOMA! Celeste Holm's vocal score for Oklahoma! inscribed by Richard Rodgers. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Doyle, Stage & Screen:</b> Lot 20. WILSON, DOOLEY. Fine inscribed photograph to Celeste Holm with Casablanca reference. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Doyle, Stage & Screen:</b> Lot 79. Original production script of the Broadway musical CATS with notes written by Claude Tessier. $600 to $900.
    <center><b>Doyle<br>Stage & Screen<br>Auction April 28</b>
    <b>Doyle, Stage & Screen:</b> Lot 139. STEPHEN SONDHEIM. Autographed musical manuscript signed for "Broadway Baby" from Follies. $500 to $800.
    <b>Doyle, Stage & Screen:</b> Lot 180.<br>Cecil Beaton. Headdress for Liza at the Ball, from My Fair Lady, circa 1962. $700 to $900.
    <b>Doyle, Stage & Screen:</b> Lot 177.<br>Cecil Beaton. Set Design for The Gainsborough Girls, 1951. $2,000 to $3,000.
  • <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 54. Fanciful engraving of earth's interior with magma core and errupting volcanoes (1682). $1500 to $1800.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 165. Rare state of Jefferys' influential map of New England in contemporary color (1755). $8000 to $9500.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 177. Mouzon's foundation map of the Carolinas (1775). $10000 to $13000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 183. Very rare first state of De Fer's map of the Lower Mississippi Valley (1715). $20000 to $25000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 253. Scarce Scottish edition based on Ellicott's plan of Washington, D.C. (1796). $2400 to $3000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 313. Stunning view of Philadelphia by John Bachmann (1850). $3250 to $4250.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 338. Rare Civil War map based on Bucholtz map of Virginia (1862). $9500 to $12000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 667. First map to accurately show Luzon in Philippines (1590). $6000 to $7500.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 682. Rare map of Shanghai International Settlement published just after WWI (1918). $7000 to $9000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 738. Coronelli's superb map of the Pacific showing the Island of California (1697) Est. $2400 - $3000
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 743. A cornerstone piece in the mapping of Australia and New Zealand (1726) Est. $6000 - $7500
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 781. An uncommon signature during Jefferson's Governorship of Virginia (1779) Est. $9500 - $11000

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