ROME (Reuters) - Italy has dropped a legal suit against the Getty Museum after the richest U.S. art institution agreed to return 40 items Rome believes were stolen and smuggled out of the country, the culture minister said Thursday.
After a 15-month battle of wills between the government and the Los Angeles-based museum, Getty will send most of the disputed items back by the end of this year under an agreement Rome said was good for both parties.
"From the moment we closed the deal we confirmed that we were pulling out of the legal case," said Francesco Rutelli, Italy's deputy prime minister and culture minister.
In Los Angeles, Getty Museum director Michael Brand welcomed the agreement and said he was looking forward to collaborating on a new program with Rome of loans and joint exhibitions which was part of the agreement.
"I don't have any worries about the gaps (in the museum). We could have some amazing things come into that space. It will be extraordinary to have 40 new objects coming in. It is sad but at the same time it is exciting," Brand told Reuters.
"It is very gratifying to have reached the final conclusion," Brand said.
The items to be returned are housed at the ancient Roman style Getty Villa in the beach city of Malibu. The Villa was reopened in early 2006 after a nine year renovation and is dedicated to the study of Roman and Greek antiquities.
Brand said the 40 disputed items were among 1,200 artefacts on public display at the Villa from a total of about 2,500.
The agreement has no direct impact on the trial in Rome of the Getty's former curator, Marion True, who is accused of conspiracy in trafficking stolen Italian antiquities.
Getty is the third U.S. museum to strike a deal with Italy to return antiquities that Rome says left the country illegally, often after being dug up by "tomb raiders."
Under a 1939 Italian law, ancient artefacts from digs belong to the state. Antiquities excavated after 1939 can only leave the country on loan.
Both New York's Metropolitan Museum and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts have returned suspects pieces, but the Getty deal is the biggest to date, with ancient artefacts that include decorated jars, fragments of frescoes and statues.
A 2.2-metre (seven-foot) 4th century B.C. marble statue of the goddess Aphrodite, which Getty bought for $18 million in 1988, will remain on display in Los Angeles until the end of 2010 after which it will be shipped to Sicily.
"The Italians have offered to lend us something of equal importance", Brand said. Details of the loans have yet to be discussed.
Italy employed legal threats and diplomatic pressure to seek the return of 52 items. Getty was initially prepared to send 26, and the deal covers 40.
The Getty and Rome agreed to defer further discussions on "Getty Bronze," also known as the Statue of a Victorious Youth, while its provenance is being ruled on by an Italian court.
Rutelli said Italy's campaign against smuggled art should make it more difficult for art smugglers to sell their loot.
"Anyone who still thinks they can plunder the world's heritage ... now knows that they are confronted with a solid cooperation between scientific and political institutions, the great museums, archaeologists and scholars," he said.
(Additional reporting by Jill Serjeant in Los Angeles)
((Editing by David Storey; firstname.lastname@example.org; +39 06 8522 4394;