From the 1960s until his death in 2007, collectibles dealer John Sisto amassed the largest private collection of manuscripts, ancient books, artifacts and antiquities in his suburban Chicago home. Trouble is, much of it was stolen.
According to the FBI, Sisto bought the looted items from a third party. The FBI's art-crime team has now turned 1,600 of the items over to the Italian government for repatriation. Sisto's son led authories to his home soon after Sisto's death.
Joseph Sisto tells NPR's Melissa Block that his father began collecting soon after he came to the U.S. from Italy in 1958.
"Throughout the late 1960s and early '70s, he went back and forth buying estates and castles — the contents of those estates — in Italy, and then shipping them back here to the United States," he says.
Sisto described his family's house as being filled — floor to ceiling — with boxes and steamer trunk-sized crates.
"It was pretty amazing," he says. "At some point, you could barely move in the house."
Sisto says his father learned about many of his treasures by asking museum curators and scholars around the country.
"Amazing for a man who ... never went to college. He was completely self-taught," Sisto says. "He learned even how to translate ancient Latin, which was in script Latin, which almost nobody knows how to read, and he learned how to do that all by himself until he became an expert in the 1970s and '80s and ... universities started calling him asking him for help."
Sisto says that in the final years of his life, his father did not want to sell his collection.
"He wanted to document it and spent years and years translating over 1,100 ancient manuscripts," he says. "And the translations are included along with the material that the FBI has seized and is returning to Italy."
Sisto eventually realized many of the antiquities had been smuggled out of Italy. Later, when he was getting a degree in cultural anthropology, he says, he learned about the UNESCO treaty that says if something is considered a cultural artifact, it should be returned to its country of origin.
Sisto says he realized the items his father collected belonged "to the world, not to an individual," so he confronted his father, causing a schism in the family.
"It was enough to keep us apart for over a decade," Sisto says.
When he found out that his father had died, Sisto flew to Chicago and immediately called the police.
"I didn't want the event of my father's death to mean an inheritance for our family that would mean we're collecting stolen goods or smuggled goods or goods that didn't belong to us by treaty or by right," he says.
Two hours after he got to his father's home, the FBI was on the scene.
Sisto describes the reaction as "a big wow."
"No one had expected it," he says. "And a lot of the material at the time no one had ever seen ever before.
"They had to bring in lots of specialists. This would be the equivalent or the size of something like the ancient ... Dead Sea Scrolls."
Sisto says he does not regret that so many items were returned to Italy because they'll eventually fill a museum and attract tourists and historians.
"It's a huge relief, because as much as I love my ... family, this will also help them," he says. "They won't have to live with the oppression of thinking they have stolen or smuggled goods. ... It's sort of like trying to own a Mona Lisa in your house, you know.
"You're always looking for it. You're afraid to leave the house alone. You have to lock all the doors, and you don't trust anybody. The end is, you shouldn't really be owning a Mona Lisa. It's for everybody."