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N.Y.'s Met to return disputed Italian artifacts

Museum signs a deal to give back supposedly looted treasures
/ Source: The Associated Press

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Italy signed a deal Tuesday under which the museum will return supposedly looted antiquities to Italy in exchange for long-term loans of other artifacts.

The unprecedented deal — which archaeologists hope will prompt other museums to change their acquisition policies — was signed in Rome by Met chief Philippe de Montebello and top Italian officials at the Culture Ministry.

The deal also was signed by a top regional official for Sicily. One of the items, the 3rd century Morgantina silver collection, was smuggled out of Sicily.

The deal caps a decades-long dispute pushed into the spotlight by a vigorous Italian campaign to reclaim treasures it says were taken from its soil illegally.

Antiquities experts and archaeologists praised the deal but said it might just be a one-time occurrence unless the Met and other museums are forced to change their policies to prevent the future acquisition of looted treasures.

"The Italians have the best evidence we've ever had in 40 years" to go after museums with dubiously acquired antiquities, said Ricardo Elia, an archaeology professor at Boston University. "They can't just accept a trade. They need to make them change their policy."

The Met had already announced Feb. 2 it would transfer legal title to Italy of six important antiquities that Italy says were looted, including the Euphronios Krater, a 6th-century B.C. painted vase widely regarded as one of the finest examples of its kind.

In exchange, it proposed that Italy provide long-term loans of works of "equivalent beauty and importance."

De Montebello was in Rome on Monday to finalize details of the agreement with ministry officials, including Culture Minister Rocco Buttiglione, who attended the ceremony.

Officials declined to give details other than to say the deal was in line with the proposals.

The other objects covered by the deal are Greek earthenware treasures dating from 320 B.C. to 520 B.C.

On Monday, Met spokesman Harold Holzer said a few details remained to be worked out but suggested they would not affect Tuesday's signing ceremony.

"I can confirm that all that is left are the details," he said from New York. "The Metropolitan is looking forward to formally consecrating the agreement" Tuesday.

The Met offered to return the items after saying it had received evidence from the Italians about their origins, a breakthrough in a dispute that highlighted other battles by countries such as Greece and Turkey to reclaim their cultural heritage from tomb raiders and the museums doing business with them.

As part of the Italian crackdown — and perhaps contributing to the pressure on the Met — a former curator from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is on trial in Rome, accused of having knowingly purchased stolen artifacts for the museum from Italy. Marion True denies any wrongdoing.

Setting a precedentPatty Gerstenblith, a professor of antiquities law at DePaul University in Chicago, said the deal with Italy was significant because the Met was recognizing Italy's title and ownership rights to artifacts found on Italian soil.

A 1939 Italian law states that any ancient artifact found in a dig belongs to the state.

"Museums that acquire looted antiquities are contributing to the contemporary, ongoing looting of sites," she said by telephone. "So it's my hope that the Met's decision will discourage other museums from acquiring these undocumented artifacts, which will discourage the market and which will then protect the sites."

Lawrence Kaye, a New York lawyer who represented the Turkish government in its 1987 lawsuit against the Met over a collection of Anatolian artifacts known as the Lydian Hoard, said the Met seems to have emerged the victor in the case.

"By taking the initiative and being aggressive, they were able to reach an agreement that gives them something also, in addition to very good press," he said, referring to the long-term loans.

"At the same time (the deal) avoids either a potential litigation like we had in the Lydian Hoard case, or risking the kind of situation that the Getty and Marion True have found themselves in."

In the Lydian case, the Met settled with Turkey before trial and returned the artifacts in 1993. The museum got nothing in return.