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New York dealer returns some of looted ancient artifacts

Italia celebrates another victory against the illegal antiquities market Tuesday, unveiling eight artifacts from the Etruscan and Roman civilizations that were stolen from the country and returned by a New York art dealer.

The ancient treasures, including a Roman statue, bronze figurines and exquisitely painted vases, were worth more than half a million dollars and were bought at auctions by New York dealer Jerome Eisenberg, Italian officials said.

Eisenberg was not aware the pieces had been stolen from Italian museums during the 1970s or illegally dug up, said Gen. Giovanni Nistri, who heads the art squad of the Carabinieri paramilitary police.

When Italian authorities showed Eisenberg evidence of the looting "he saw it was right to return them," Nistri said in Rome. They were returned over the last few months.

"This is a dealer who since 1999 has returned of his own initiative other artifacts that came into his possession" and were shown to have been looted, Nistri said.

Eisenberg, who runs galleries in New York and London, said he bought most of the antiquities at auctions in the British capital in the 1980s, and decided to return them after Italian authorities recently turned up evidence that they were looted.

"It was the right thing to do and maybe it will set an example for other people," he told The Associated Press by telephone.

Italy has been aggressively seeking the return of looted antiquities it says were smuggled out of the country and sold to museums and collectors worldwide.

So far Rome's greatest coups have been deals signed by U.S. museums, including the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, the J. Paul Getty Museum in California and - just last week - Princeton's University Art Museum.

Placing additional pressure on the art world, Italy's judiciary has put on trial in Rome former Getty curator Marion True and art dealer Robert Hecht. The two Americans are accused of knowingly acquiring dozens of ancient artifacts allegedly looted from the country. They deny wrongdoing.

Under Italy's recent agreements with U.S. museums, dozens of antiquities have been handed over in exchange for long-term loans of other treasures.

Nistri stressed that Eisenberg returned the pieces for free, in a deal that signals that, while still focusing on other museums worldwide, Rome is widening its search for looted treasures to private collectors and art galleries.

"The noose is tightening around activities that for decades seemed unstoppable," Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli said. "Not only museums are giving back (artifacts), but collectors and dealers are doing the same."

The eight pieces unveiled Tuesday had a value of US$510,000 (350,000 EUR) and include a 1st Century Roman statue of a reclining woman that was used to decorate a fountain, as well four vases from the 6th and 5th century B.C., painted with mythological themes and scenes from everyday life.

The statue was probably looted from a Roman villa, while the vases must have come from the tombs built by the Etruscan civilization, which dominated central Italy before the rise of Rome, said Stefano De Caro, director of archaeology at the Culture Ministry.

Also displayed at the art squad's headquarters were three stolen bronze votive statuettes, including one depicting Nike - the winged goddess of victory - that was stolen in a 1975 armed robbery at a state archaeological office in Ercolano, near Pompeii.

Rutelli said most of the artifacts will be displayed at an exhibition set to open in December at Rome's presidential palace featuring many of the treasures handed over by museums.

While praising the return of the art, Rutelli said that nothing can repair the damage done by looters who rip through archaeological sites and remove priceless works from a context that is equally valuable for scholars.

"Where was this fountain?" Rutelli asked, pointing to the Roman statue. "What was next to it? What else has been taken from us?"

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