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Italy Calls Agreement With Getty Museum to Return Ancient Artifacts 'Historic'

Italy's culture minister is calling an accord reached with the J. Paul Getty Museum for the return of 40 ancient artifacts "historic" and a victory for artistic ethics. Sabina Castelfranco reports from Rome that Francesco Rutelli also says it is a blow to looters and art traffickers worldwide.

Negotiations between the J. Paul Getty Museum and Italian culture authorities had been underway for a year and a half. The aim was to reach agreement on the return of antiquities that Italy says were stolen.

Italy's Culture Ministry had threatened to suspend all collaboration with the Getty, a major U.S art institution, if an agreement was not reached.

The museum, in Los Angeles, has always denied making illegal purchases, but it agreed to return 40 pieces, said by Italian authorities to have been illegally trafficked out of the country.

Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli says the agreement on these 40 works is a great success for Italy, for culture, and also for those museums that have decided to turn a page and return what they acquired through non-transparent means.

He called the deal a victory for "shared ethics on artistic heritage," and he said the U.S. administration also helped to reach the agreement although he did not elaborate.

Rutelli said that although the deal is a blow to art traffickers worldwide, it makes looting more attractive because it raises the value of the booty. Fewer pieces available for trafficking also mean a higher price for them.

The agreement is reported to include ancient Greek marble sculptures, red and black figured vessels, and fragments of frescoes.

It provides for widespread cultural cooperation, including loans of other treasures to the Getty. Under the accord, the museum gets to keep a key artifact until 2010, a limestone and marble statue of the goddess Aphrodite. The others will be returned by December 31st this year.

Despite the accord, the fate of some pieces is still pending. Italy and the Getty disagree on the "Statue of a Victorious Athlete," a Greek bronze believed to date from around the fourth century B.C.

Talks on the statue are set to resume after an Italian court case concerning the object. The Getty says the statue was found in international waters.

The deal is not expected to affect the trial of a former Getty curator and an American art dealer. They are on trial in Rome, charged with having knowingly received stolen Italian archeological treasures.

The deal between Italy and the Getty Museum is the third Italy has reached with a major U.S. institution, since Italian authorities launched a worldwide campaign to recover looted treasures.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston have agreed to return key parts of their classical collections in return for loans of of important works in Italian collections.