US museum returns looted antiquities as Italians stand up for lost heritage

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The Independent Online

Italy took one more step towards recovering its heritage and its pride last week with the return from Boston's Museum of Fine Art of 13 masterpieces of looted ancient art.

The treasures include a sublime and immaculate 7ft-tall marble statue of the wife of the Emperor Hadrian, dating from AD136. Also returned are part of a candelabrum, ancient Greek water jugs and vessels with paintings of gods. Some date back as far as 530BC.

Malcolm Rogers, director of the Boston museum, said: "When we acquired the objects, we did it in good faith." They were purchased in the 1970s, the heyday of Italian grave-robbers, when enterprising peasants sold the products of their midnight rambles to unscrupulous dealers, who unloaded them for large sums of money on eager American institutions.

The most notorious case involves Malibu's Getty Museum, reputedly the wealthiest in the world. Encouraged by its swashbuckling oil billionaire founder, the Getty spent tens of millions of dollars buying extraordinary masterpieces of the ancient world from dealers who, it emerged, had obtained them illegally. Last year the museum's former curator of antiquities, Marion True, went on trial in Rome along with one of her dealers, for conspiracy and receiving smuggled art. She denies the charges.

Boston's Museum of Fine Art was never in the Getty league - the objects returned cost a total of $834,000 (£445,000) - and has not suffered the indignity of seeing a curator sent before an Italian judge. But a resolution of Italy's dispute with the Getty - it is waiting for the return of 39 invaluable works, including an immense and perfect statue of Aphrodite originating from Sicily - is still a long way off, as Italy's Minister of Culture, Francesco Rutelli, conceded when he signed the deal with the Boston Museum.

"I think this agreement can accelerate those that are proceeding more slowly," Mr Rutelli said. The case involving the Getty, he went on, was "perhaps a little bit more complicated ... It's huge, huge. But we are very determined to close such a negotiation." Thomas Hoving, former director of New York's Metropolitan Museum, which has also returned looted works, said: "Neither Boston nor the Met has a former curator indicted by Italy. If they had not indicted Marion True, it would have been an easier path for everybody. That's the sticking point."

Others argue Italy had no choice but to play hardball with the Getty, given the value of what had been lost. They also maintain that the shock of Ms True's prosecution is one of the things that has brought other museums round.

Yet the indications are that the plunder does continue. Daniel Berger, an adviser to Italy's Culture Ministry, said: "There are still illegal digs going on, you'd need an army to prevent it. Practically every time you plough a field in Italy you find something. But no one who had a 'hot pot' would come to an American museum today."