ROME – Boston's Museum of Fine Arts returned 13 disputed ancient artifacts to Italy on Thursday, a deal that Italian officials hope will pave the way for others to give back antiquities they say were smuggled out of the country.
Among the artifacts turned over were a statue and a bas-relief believed to have decorated Hadrian's Villa.
The agreement promises loans of other Italian treasures to the MFA, and marks the latest victory for Italy in its quest to regain antiquities that were dug up illegally and sold to museums worldwide.
"We determined that the proper home for these objects was Italy," said MFA director Malcolm Rogers. "We are proud to be doing the decent thing."
Speaking after a signing ceremony at the Culture Ministry in Rome, Rogers contended that the museum was not aware of the artifacts' illegal origin before Italian authorities presented them with new evidence during the yearlong negotiations.
"They were bought in absolute good faith, but some new evidence has come to light and we've responded," he said.
Rogers and Italian officials declined to say what the new evidence was or whether other pieces are in dispute. The agreement provides for an exchange of information between the two parties concerning any future acquisition of artifacts from Italy.
"We in Boston are committed, alongside the Italian government, to seeing the end of illegal trade and illegal excavation of antiquities," Rogers said.
Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli said the landmark deal could push other museums to act.
Italy has aggressively tried to recover archaeological treasures through agreements such as this one, as well as through criminal prosecution. A 1939 Italian law requires any antiquities found in Italy to be turned over to the state.
In one case, Marion True, a former curator for the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is on trial in Rome, along with American art dealer Robert Hecht for alleged trafficking in looted artifacts. Both have denied wrongdoing.
Lawyers for the Italian government have been negotiating with Getty officials toward reaching a deal similar to the Boston museum accord. Giuseppe Proietti, a top culture ministry official, said talks with the California museum would resume soon and a meeting was also being arranged with the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Earlier this year, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed to return 21 artifacts that were looted from Italy in exchange for loans.
However, Boston's are the first artifacts to return to Italy. Those included in the Met deal are set to come home progressively over the next years, starting in November when Rutelli makes a visit to the United States. The trip will include a stop in Boston for discussions on which Italian pieces will be loaned to the MFA.
The artifacts returned Thursday, acquired by the museum between the 1960s and 1990s, include 11 vases from central and southern Italy mostly depicting scenes from ancient Greek myths. The black ceramic jugs, amphorae and pitchers, dating from the fourth to sixth centuries B.C., are decorated with the red figures typical of the style perfected by the Greek colonies in southern Italy and the Etruscan civilization in the center of the country.
The vases were displayed on a table at Thursday's ceremony, while the 6.5-foot marble statue of Sabina, the wife of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, was dramatically unveiled after the signing, drawing oohs and aahs from the crowd of officials and journalists.
The second-century statue, in excellent condition, portrays a standing Sabina gracefully clasping a cloak draped on her shoulders. Along with the first-century bas-relief, it is believed to have come from Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli, 18 miles east of Rome.
The returned pieces will be displayed together at the National Roman Museum in the capital for a week, beginning Oct. 10. They will then go to museums close to their places of origin.