ROME (Reuters) - The United States on Wednesday returned stolen art works worth millions of dollars to Italy, including two 2,300-year-old ceramic vases, a Roman sculpture and a Renaissance painting.
The seven works, which Italian police said were illegally smuggled into the United States by organized crime groups specializing in stolen art, will now be returned to their owners and museums.
"The recovery of these works of art was thanks to professional cooperation between law enforcement in Italy and the United States," said Italian Culture Minister Lorenzo Ornaghi.
"The recovery of art is an important chapter in our history of cooperation," he told a news conference at the U.S. embassy.
Italian police said the painted ceramics, looted from archeological digs in central and southern Italy, appeared on their radar when they were put up for auction by art house Christie's in New York.
A 16th century painting by Lelio Orsi depicting the Greek myth of Leda and the swan was once in a private collection and sold for around $1.5 million at auction house Sotheby's in January, 2008, when it caught the attention of Italian police.
The red, black and gold vases, formally known as a pelike and a situla and which appeared to be in excellent condition, depict scenes from Roman life.
Also returned was a sculpture of a two-headed god made of marble and known as a Janiform Herm.
U.S. ambassador David Thorne said increased cooperation between U.S. Homeland Security agents and Italian Carabinieri police specializing in the prevention of art fraud should increase recoveries in the future.
The United States has repatriated more than 2,500 objects to more than 23 countries and individuals since 2007.
"There is more and more a sense that the art belongs to these countries and it should be returned," Thorne said.
"With the Internet and these systems of international cooperation in place I expect the return of art to get better and better," Thorne added, acknowledging the recovered works were a fraction of illicit goods in circulation.
The ambassador said profits from illicit trade in cultural property were estimated to be $8 billion a year according to official figures, making it third only to the illegal drugs and weapons trades.
Reporting By Naomi O'Leary; editing by Philip Pullella