Image: Alexander Acosta, Diego Herrera
Alan Diaz  /  AP
U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta, right foreground, and Diego Herrera, Director of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology, left foreground, look at recovered artifacts in Miami on July 8, 2008. Federal authorities say the items were recovered from an Italian citizen who was living in south Florida and illegally smuggling them into the country.
updated 7/8/2008 3:42:19 PM ET 2008-07-08T19:42:19

Delicately carved emeralds, rare gold nose rings and clay vessels that may have held bones more than 2,000 years ago — all plundered from ancient graves — will be returned to Colombia.

More than 60 priceless items confiscated in South Florida in 2005 will soon be repatriated to the South American nation, U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta and officials from the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement said during a news conference Tuesday.

"These pieces are part of the history and the identity of the Colombian people," said Diego Herrera, director of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology. "I refuse to put a monetary value on these materials; there is a historical and symbolic value."

The artifacts were stolen — officials could not say when — from the graves of people who lived in Colombia before the arrival of European explorers.

Eventually they ended up in the hands of an Italian, Ugo Bagnato, who smuggled them into the U.S. using fake documents and sold them from the back of a van in South Florida, officials said. Bagnato, 66, was arrested in 2005 after trying to sell two clay vessels to an undercover agent. He pleaded guilty to selling and receiving stolen goods and served 17 months in federal prison, then was deported to Italy.

Bagnato's attorney did not return a call for comment Tuesday.

Experts who worked on the case said Bagnato stored the rare artifacts from Colombia, and more than 400 pieces from ancient graves in Peru, in a warehouse in Broward County. He occasionally sold some items for $2,000 or more. He also kept some pieces in a Winnebago van in Pembroke Pines, officials said. Authorities recovered the trove from the warehouse and van.

"He had absolute callous disregard for what they were," said Carol Damian, an art history expert at Florida International University. "He was only interested in money."

Damian, who helped identify the pieces as authentic, said they are excellent examples of burial and religious traditions of the era. She was able to pinpoint the Colombian region where the items originated from the style of carving, the type of clay used and other markings.

During Tuesday's news conference, Damian pointed to a small terra cotta statue of a man seated on a throne, chewing on a coca leaf.

"This demonstrates a person of high stature, a shaman, or a priest," she said.

She also said a half-dozen domino-sized emeralds were once part of a necklace.

There's no timetable for when the items will be shipped back to Colombia; the 400 artifacts from Peru were returned to that country in 2007.

U.S. Attorney Acosta said the Bagnato case was the largest of its kind in Florida and one of the biggest antiquities trafficking cases in the United States.

Said Acosta: "It's not merely pottery. These are delicate treasures that must be preserved."

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