Stolen marble head of Rome's first emperor returns to Italy

ROME (Reuters) - A marble sculpture of the head of Rome’s first emperor was welcomed back to the Italian capital on Tuesday, some 40 years after it was stolen and trafficked out of the country.

The portrayal of Augustus, one of the earliest known depictions of a man born more than 2,000 years ago, is the latest artifact from Italy’s ancient sites to be repatriated after being illegally smuggled abroad.

The phenomenon became so widespread that Italy set up a police unit dedicated to tracing the pieces.

“Today we don’t just have the retrieval,” Deputy Foreign Minister Mario Giro said at a ceremony to mark the return of the artwork. “We are celebrating the importance the memories of these artifacts have for the future of humanity.”

The 45 centimeter veiled head, whose hairstyle shows it dates to the period before the young Octavius became emperor and took the name Augustus in around 27 B.C., had been on display in the Cinquantenaire Museum in Brussels.

The museum had bought it in good faith after it ended up in a private collection, Italy’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement, without saying who might have committed the original theft.

As soon as art history experts established that it had been stolen from Nepi, near Rome, in the 1970s, the museum decided immediately to return it to Italy, the ministry said.

Visibly damaged by exposure to the elements and the passage of time, the head is believed to have formed part of a statue wearing a toga. Its likeness to another head in the Nepi museum helped identify it, Nepi mayor Pietro Soldatelli said.

“After more than 40 years of exile in Europe, he’s finally home. Welcome back Augustus,” Soldatelli said.

Reporting by Cristiano Corvino, Writing by Isla Binnie; Editing by Alison Williams