The agreement, announced by the Italian Culture Ministry, provides for the return of six priceless works, including the Euphronios Krater, a sixth-century BC painted vase that is regarded as one of the finest examples of its kind, and the third century BC Morgantina collection of Hellenistic silver, smuggled out of Sicily.
The deal, to be signed today in Rome by Philippe de Montebello, the chief executive of the Met, and Italy's Culture minister, Rocco Buttiglione, ends a decades-old dispute, and could serve as a model for similar cases involving looted antiquities. The museum will transfer legal title on the pieces, now established to have been stolen from Italian sites and museums. In exchange Italy will provide the Met with long-term loans of works of art of equivalent importance. The other works to be returned are Greek terracotta pieces dating from the sixth to the fourth centuries BC.
The breakthrough came when the Met received solid evidence from the Italians about the items' origins - part of a stepped-up campaign by the Rome authorities to track down treasures illegally exported from the country.
In a separate case, a former curator from the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is on trial in Rome, accused of having knowingly purchased stolen artefacts for the museum from Italy.
But the resolution with the Met may have only limited impact on other artistic tug-of-wars. Peru is pressing Yale University to return items from the pre-Colombian site of Machu Picchu. The university maintains they were acquired legally, with the consent of the Peruvian government of the day, early in the last century.
The same goes for the most notorious such case of all - the Elgin Marbles held by Britain, which has resisted every attempt by the Greek government to return them to their place of origin, the Acropolis in Athens.