updated 11/6/2008 7:25:58 PM ET 2008-11-07T00:25:58

Switzerland is returning 4,400 ancient artifacts stolen from archaeological sites in Italy, including ceramics, figurines and bronze daggers dating as far back as 2,000 B.C., prosecutors said Thursday.

The transfer will require three tractor-trailers and all but end a seven-year legal battle over the antiquities.

They were seized in 2001 in storage rooms belonging to two Basel-based art dealers after a tip-off from Italy, said Markus Melzl, a spokesman for city prosecutors. The couple have since lost several court battles to prevent the antiquities from being returned to Italy, Melzl said.

More than half the objects were from the eastern Italian region of Apulia, an area that was heavily influenced by ancient Greek culture, said Guido Lassau, a Swiss archaeologist who worked on the case.

They include richly decorated vases and so-called kraters, large vessels that were used for mixing wine with water. The objects were stolen from upper-class tombs dating from the fifth to third centuries B.C., according to Lassau.

'Vast haul'
One item that looks like a ceramic mask modeled on a woman's face retains the original water-soluble painting from about 300 B.C.

"They're very well preserved because they spent the last 2,000 years in a virtual time capsule until they were plundered by grave robbers," Lassau told The Associated Press. "But the tragic thing is that a lot of the archaeological information was lost when they were removed."

Other items belong to the pre-Etruscan Villanova culture of northern Italy, and some of the bronze figures appear to have originated on the island of Sardinia.

The oldest are bronze daggers thought to be about 4,000 years old, said Lassau.

"This is a vast haul on a dramatic scale that would have saturated the market if they had been sold," he said, adding that very few such items are available through legal channels.

Melzl said it was almost impossible to put a value on the haul.

"The only way you can sell these things is on the black market," he said. "It's like asking how expensive the Mona Lisa is. These are goods of important historical value. They're priceless."

But if the couple had managed to sell all the items, and there is evidence they sold at least a few, "you'd make millions," said Melzl.

Investigation begins
The couple, who have not been identified because of Swiss privacy laws, are under investigation in Italy and Switzerland, he said.

The woman could face prosecution in Switzerland for handling stolen goods, and her husband is the subject of criminal proceedings in Italy for allegedly exporting cultural antiquities illegally, handling stolen goods and belonging to a criminal organization, Melzl said.

Swiss authorities are still trying to determine the exact origin of some 1,400 further antiquities also confiscated in 2001.

Switzerland was until recently a major hub for the trade in stolen antiquities, but new laws introduced in 2005 have largely shut down the illegal market there, said Lassau.

"The market has moved on to Germany, which has far looser laws," he said. "They really need to close the loopholes in their legislation, if they want to stop the global trade in these goods."

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