The J. Paul Getty Museum has agreed to return two ancient sculptures at the center of a major cultural heritage dispute with Greece, officials said Monday.
Greek Culture Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis said he was "extremely satisfied" with the decision, and voiced optimism similar moves would follow from the Getty and other international museums.
"This is just the beginning," Voulgarakis said. "I believe that in the future we will have very good results concerning other antiquities whose return we are seeking."
Voulgarakis said the private U.S. museum in Los Angeles will return a 6th century B.C. votive relief from the island of Thassos and a 4th century B.C. carved tombstone from near Thebes, an antiquities-rich town some 55 miles northwest of Athens.
He did not say when the artifacts would arrive in Greece.
In a joint statement with Getty officials, Voulgarakis said negotiations would continue on the return of two other ancient masterpieces Greece claims were illegally excavated and smuggled out of the country.
"The decision to return the two ancient artifacts to Greece was based on a thorough internal investigation carried out by the Getty Museum, which concluded that it would be right to return the works," the statement said.
Voulgarakis was unable to provide an estimate of the sculptures' market value.
The statement said talks between Greece and the Getty — to be concluded by late August — would focus on a 4th century B.C. golden wreath and a 6th century B.C. statue in the museum's collections, "as well as the long-term loan of Greek antiquities to the J. Paul Getty Museum."
Voulgarakis did not elaborate, saying that "in such negotiations, one needs to be flexible."
During a May 16 visit to Athens, Getty director Michael Brand agreed to recommend to the museum's Board of Trustees the return of "some" of the antiquities.
This followed intense pressure from Greek authorities, who said they were able to prove the works were looted.
The Thassos marble relief — an offering to a shrine that shows two women bearing gifts to a goddess — was found by French archaeologists about 100 years ago and stolen from a storeroom. The Getty bought it in 1955.
The black stone tombstone, incised with the figure of a young warrior named Athanias, was acquired by the Getty in the early 1990s. Greek authorities say it was illegally excavated near Thebes between 1992-96, while 11 other similar artifacts are displayed in the town's museum.
Greek law stipulates that all antiquities found in the country are state property.
Authorities have stepped up their campaign for the return of looted antiquities, thousands of which are believed to be displayed in museums and private collections worldwide.
Last month, the Getty said a tentative agreement was reached in negotiations with Italian authorities over allegedly illegally obtained antiquities. Italy has been negotiating for the return of dozens of artifacts.