Italy has reached an agreement with a U.S. museum for the return of artifacts that Rome says have been looted or smuggled out of the country, art officials said Friday.
Under the deal the Cleveland Museum of Art will return 16 artifacts to Italy, the Culture Ministry said, without giving details.
Italy - which has been conducting an aggressive campaign to recover disputed antiquities - has reached earlier agreements with other U.S. museums including the J. Paul Getty Museum in California and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
Friday's announcement coincided with a new culture minister, conservative Sandro Bondi, taking over the portfolio from predecessor Francesco Rutelli.
"I immediately gave some good news to the new minister," Rutelli said. "Just these past days we have concluded the agreement - which will be formalized by Minister Bondi - with the Cleveland museum."
Rutelli said the artifacts to be returned were "significant," but did not say what they were.
Italian art officials could not be reached for comment.
Italy says ancient treasures have ended up in museums or private collections abroad after allegedly being looted from archeological sites and then sold with false documentation. Among items recovered is a 2,500-year-old vase by Greek artist Euphronius, returned by the Metropolitan Museum in New York and unveiled in Rome earlier this year.
... but the Cleveland Plain Dealer notes:
Italy sent conflicting signals Friday about whether it had reached an agreement with the Cleveland Museum of Art over returning ancient works of art the country believes were looted. The Associated Press reported that the Italian Culture Ministry in Rome announced completion of an agreement with the museum under which 16 unspecified objects would be returned.
But when contacted by The Plain Dealer, Maurizio Fiorilli, the lawyer handling the negotiations for Italy, at first said that there was no agreement yet and that the original AP report was "sbagliato" -- mistaken.
He said the culture ministry's statement was only "an expression of hope" and "an expression of desire that the negotiations would conclude shortly."
Hours later, in an interview with the Associated Press in Rome, Fiorilli said that Italy and the museum had reached a verbal agreement and that negotiations were almost at a final stage. The musuem, however, said there was no agreement.
Fiorilli told the Associated Press that Italy hopes to hear back soon from Cleveland on finalizing the deal.
Amid all this, the museum seems to have been taken by surprise.
"No agreement has been reached, nor has the museum agreed to transfer any objects to Italy," the museum said in a statement Friday.
Cindy Fink, the Cleveland museum's director of marketing and communications, declined to comment on Fiorilli's description of a verbal agreement.
The statements from Rome coincided with a change in leadership at the Ministry of Fine Arts. Conservative Sandro Bondi, appointed by newly elected Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, succeeded Francesco Rutelli as minister of culture.
The Associated Press quoted Rutelli as having said: "I immediately gave some good news to the new minister. Just these past days we have concluded the agreement -- which will be formalized by Minister Bondi -- with the Cleveland museum."
Rutelli described the objects to be returned as "significant," without elaborating.
Speaking to The Plain Dealer, Fiorilli praised Cleveland museum director Timothy Rub for being "sensitive and open," and expressed the hope that an agreement could be reached within a couple of months.
He said the works under discussion "are of sure Italian provenance . . . acquired on the European market from persons more or less connected with a network of traffickers that also supplied other American museums."
When Italy reaches an agreement with the Cleveland museum, "you can read it as a manifestation of cultural collaboration, not a defeat for Cleveland and a victory for Italy," he said.
"It will be a victory of culture."