Boston museum agrees to return artifacts, Italy says

Special to The Times

Italian authorities say Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, one of several major U.S. museums accused of harboring looted artifacts from Italy, has agreed on the outline of a deal to return multiple items.

In a joint statement, MFA Director Malcolm Rogers and Italian officials stopped short of claiming a complete agreement or disclosing details on artifacts, saying only that in a daylong Tuesday meeting, they "made significant progress toward a final agreement that establishes a cultural partnership."

But in an interview, Italian Cultural Ministry attorney Maurizio Fiorilli, the country's lead antiquities prosecutor, indicated that the conversation included discussion of 16 MFA-held objects with disputed provenance and that the core of the pact would include return of more than one object.

He also said he expected the deal to be finalized by Sept. 30 and the first object to be back on Italian soil by Oct. 4.

The MFA talks follow a landmark agreement between Italy and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in February. In that pact, the Met agreed to return 21 objects and receive items of comparable significance on long-term loan.

The J. Paul Getty Museum, accused of holding 52 objects that Italy alleges were looted, has been in talks with Italian cultural officials for several months. In June, the Getty announced an agreement to return an unidentified number of major antiquities to Italy, but neither side has divulged details and Italian authorities have disputed that a specific agreement was reached.

Two weeks ago, Getty officials agreed to return two objects to Greece. Former Getty antiquities curator Marion True has been on trial in Rome since late last year, accused of buying items she allegedly knew were illegally obtained from Italy. True, whose legal costs are being covered by the Getty, has denied wrongdoing.

Agree to 'work together'

The most important element of the MFA talks, Fiorilli said, is that the Boston museum has agreed to work with Italy in connection with further antiquities acquisitions and exhibitions. That goes a step further than the Met's pact, Fiorilli said, and could make the MFA a "partner" in the fight against looting and illegal excavation.

In their joint statement, Italian and MFA leaders said the agreement "will include the transfer of certain objects of Italian origin in the Museum's collection to Italy; the loan of significant works from Italy to the MFA's displays and special exhibitions program; and the establishment of a process by which the MFA and Italy will work together to ensure the viability of future acquisitions of Italian antiquities by the Museum."

The Italians and MFA leaders said they also hope for collaboration on scholarship, conservation, archeological investigation and exhibition planning.

The MFA's "art of the ancient world" collection includes about 70,000 pieces from Egypt, Greece, Rome and other ancient societies, which makes it one of the world's foremost depositories of antiquities.

Oct. 4 is a significant date in the talks, Fiorilli said, because that's the first hearing date in the legal appeal of antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici, who was convicted last year of trafficking in looted art and has had extensive dealings with American museums.

Times staff writer Christopher Reynolds reported from Los Angeles and correspondent Livia Borghese from Rome.

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