ROME, March 28 (Xinhua) -- Starting in April, Italy will begin the process of repatriating nearly 800 cultural and historical artifacts that had been illegally smuggled from China.
This represents the biggest repatriation of Chinese artifacts in more than two decades and it is part of a wide array of agreements strengthening cultural, economic, and political ties between Italy and China.
The agreement over the cultural and historical objects also helps solidify Italy's status as one of the world's leaders in the battles against stolen and illegally imported artifacts.
"Most of the time, Italy is the country that artifacts are stolen from," Barbara Cortese, head of the Juridical Observatory on the Protection of Cultural Heritage at Roma Tre University, told Xinhua. "This time it's the other way around, but it's consistent with Italy's role in this area. Things have to be returned to where they came from."
Italian Minister of Culture Alberto Bonisoli and his Chinese counterpart, Luo Shugang, signed the agreement that would see 796 Chinese artifacts back to China.
According to the Italian ministry, the objects range from very large to small, and date from as far back as 5,000 years ago to modern times. Among the specific items are a Neolithic clay pot, porcelain made during the Song Dynasty, and pottery from the Han, Tang, and Ming Dynasties.
China is expected to display the ideals in Beijing next year as part of a wider plan to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Italy and China.
When the repatriation is complete, it will be the biggest transfer of cultural and historical artifacts since Great Britain returned around 3,000 items in 1998.
Media reports say most of the items were discovered at an Italian art market in the northern Italian town of Roncadelle in 2007, sparking a long investigation into the provenance of the items.
"We are proud to return these pieces that represent the heritage and identity of the Chinese people to their rightful place," Bonisoli said in a statement.
"This is a tremendous gesture of good will," Giuseppe Calabi, a senior partner with the Studio CBM & Partners law firm and a specialist in issues related to art and art history, said in an interview.
Both Cortese and Calabi had praise for the specially trained Italian Carabinieri Art Squad, which uncovered the trove of artifacts in 2007 and which continues to work as the vanguard of art police squads.
"The Carabinieri are well trained and have access to an extensive database of items that have been stolen or smuggled from their rightful home," Cortese said.
While the number of cases involving stolen or smuggled cultural or historical artifacts has been on the rise, the number of robberies has declined in recent decades.
"The rise we're seeing is because officials are more attentive and methods of identifying displaced artifacts are improving," said Cortese, adding that the high point for smugglers was in the period before World War II, when few controls were in place.
After the agreement between Bonisoli and Luo, the enforcement may become even stronger. The two countries have agreed to work together to combat the illicit trafficking of cultural and historical artifacts.