Italy presents 6th-century B.C. Greek vase returned by Met after looting allegations

ROME (AP) _ With the return of a long-sought masterpiece of antiquity, Italy on Friday trumpeted one of the successes of its campaign to recover what it says are looted treasures from museums and collectors around the world.

The 2,500-year-old vase by Greek artist Euphronius, which Italy regained after signing a deal with the Metropolitan Museum in New York, was feted in Rome at an official presentation.

The Euphronius Krater _ a large vase painted with scenes related to Homers epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey _ is regarded as one of the finest examples of its kind. The vase was used as a bowl for mixing wine and water.

It is universally considered the best work by the artist, Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli said at the ceremony. Also attending was his predecessor, Rocco Buttiglione, who started the countrys high-profile campaign to recover art stolen from its territory.

Rutelli sought to reassure art lovers that the Mets artistic richness would not suffer.

This doesnt mean were taking an opportunity away from the public, the minister said, stressing that the deal calls for Italy to lend equally significant artifacts to the Met for four years. The policy of exchanging items resolves a tough confrontation without hurting museum visitors.

The Euphronius Krater was at the heart of negotiations with the New York museum. And it was the focal point of Italian government efforts to recover ancient treasures that have ended up in museums or private collections with what Italy claims was false documentation after being allegedly looted from archaeological sites.

Euphronius was one of Athens greatest vase painters during a time of unequaled mastery for pottery in the ancient world. Like many other vessels, the krater was exported to Italy, and it is believed to have been used by the Etruscan civilization to decorate a tomb near Rome.

More than 2,000 years later, the priceless vase was looted from the site by Italys tombaroli _ or tomb raiders _ and smuggled out of the country, Italian authorities say.

The museum bought it for US$1 million in 1972 from American art dealer Robert Hecht, who is on trial in Rome on charges of knowingly acquiring allegedly looted ancient artifacts. He denies wrongdoing.

The deal that was eventually sealed with the New York museum in February 2006 called for the return of the vase by mid-January 2008. The museum also agreed to return 20 other antiquities.

Italy has secured the return of dozens of Roman, Greek and Etruscan artifacts in deals with museums including the Met and Californias J. Paul Getty Museum. Italian art officials have said the agreements for long term loans of prestigious artifacts should discourage looting.

Our goal is to cut short illegal art trafficking and in order to do this, we can loan our artifacts, Maurizio Fiorilli, Italys chief negotiator with the museums, said Friday. No one should have reason to turn to the black market, because we can loan these objects to them.

The Euphronius Krater _ long a highlight of the Mets collection _ was last exhibited at the New York museum on Sunday.

In Rome, it is to join pottery, sculpture and painting masterpieces recovered through Italys campaign and now on display at the Quirinal presidential palace.

Rutelli vowed to keep up the campaign _ saying efforts would now also turn to the Far East and northern Europe.

Ministry officials have said that negotiations will focus next on museums, including the New Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, Denmark; the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Miho Museum in Shiga, western Japan.

Rutelli gave details about a recent agreement with a private U.S. collector that signals Italys intention to broaden its campaign.

The deal with New York philanthropist Shelby White calls for the return of 10 artifacts from her private collection, the Culture Ministry confirmed Friday. It was first reported in the New York Times.

Nine of the items have already been given to the Italian Consulate in New York and the 10th _ another vase by Euphronius _ was expected to be returned in two years, the ministry said.