Italy has been at the forefront in securing the return of looted antiquities from major museums in Boston, Los Angeles and New York.
But the government's decision not to seek a 2,600-year-old Etruscan chariot, one of the star attractions of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, has angered the people of a small mountain town in Umbria where it was discovered more than a century ago.
The two-wheeled chariot is considered one of the great masterpieces of antiquity. Its three panels show scenes from the life of the Greek hero, Achilles.
In 1902, a shepherd in Monteleone di Spoleto dug it up by chance and sold it for scrap metal so that he could buy tiles for his roof. The chariot was then taken to Rome, allegedly hidden in a pharmacy before being sent to Paris.
U.S. financier J.P. Morgan then bought and shipped it to New York, according to Titta Mazzetta, an Italian-American lawyer whose family originates from the town where the Etruscan Chariot was found.
In February 1904, The New York Times reported on what it called the chariot's "surreptitious exportation to the United States."
"We had proof that it had been exported illegally because in 1904 a senator, Bernabei, he made a parliamentary inquiry regarding the illegal exportation of the chariot to the United States," Mazzetta says.
But Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli says that the Etruscan chariot is not on the government's most-wanted list because at the time it was discovered, there was a legal vacuum regarding antiquity sales.
"The position of the Italian government is that that object, very important, was legally purchased at the beginning of the 20th century. At that time, a legal-binding framework about works of art sales did not exist, so it will remain in New York," Rutelli explains.
Mazzetta, however, argues that the statute of limitations and international treaties are not applicable to the chariot because of its uniqueness.
"It is connected to the history and culture of this territory, so we want to carve an exception to the law," he says.
Monteleone is a quiet medieval village in central Italy surrounded by the gentle, green slopes of the Nerina valley.
Despite its beauty, the town is completely off the tourist track, and poverty has forced most of its residents to emigrate, its population dwindling to 600.
One elderly resident, Nino Carboniti, says everyone here grew up hearing wonderful tales about the chariot.
"During the winters when it was very cold, we would sit practically inside the big fireplace, and my grandmother would tell us about the golden chariot that had been stolen from us. It was all about our identity," Carboniti remembers.
He says that for the people of Monteleone di Spoleto, the magnificent golden chariot is a symbol of respect and glory snatched away.
But it nevertheless remains a constant presence — on postcards, posters and even a poor replica in the local tourist office.
Monteleone's Mayor Nando Durastanti says they will never give up the battle to get the original back. He says that it's their duty as the heirs and successors of the Etruscan people who lived here thousands of years ago.
"The chariot is in the DNA of the people of Monteleone," Durastanti says. "It's not abstract. It was produced by people from here. It is connected to the men and women who lived here in the past and who live here today."
There's a nice audio report accompanying the original story as well ...