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ROME (Reuters) - A treasure trove of stolen art, ancient ceramics and marble work hunted down by Italian police went on public display on Thursday in a sumptuous exhibition in the presidential palace in Rome.
The collection of artifacts, all retrieved in the past few years, includes oil paintings, gilt altarpieces, ancient vases and a series of ornately carved marble funerary urns considered to be one of the most important ever finds in Etruscan art.
The exhibition shines a light on the scale of illegal trade in art and ancient artifacts in Italy, which boasts the world's largest number of UNESCO world heritage sites but struggles to protect its vast patrimony from theft and mismanagement.
"The works on display, from illegal excavations or thefts from museums and churches, each has a specific story," said Louis Godart, an archaeologist and artistic adviser to Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano.
"Their recovery at the end of a long and difficult investigation is due to those who fight passionately the predators of the people's heritage."
The special police unit involved, the 'Carabinieri Art Squad', has recovered almost a million ancient artifacts and hundreds of thousands of artworks, including some by Renaissance artists Raphael and Perugino, since its formation 45 years ago.
The squad has displayed some of their previous trawls but the exhibition at the Quirinal Palace, Napolitano's official residence, is the largest to date and comprises more than 100 works spanning 2,000 years of Italian history.
The largest items on display in the exhibition and filling a whole room of the palace are the Etruscan funerary urns, which are carved with scenes of centaurs, battles and ancient myths.
Dating from the third to the first century B.C., the urns were part of the mausoleum of the aristocratic Cacni family, thought to be disturbed by builders during modern construction work near the city of Perugia.
The discovery of a small marble head and a photograph of an Etruscan urn allowed police to bust an illegal trafficking operation. The traffickers had used the photo and bust to tempt potential buyers, in violation of an Italian law that ancient artifacts belong to the state and must be declared.
Now professionally restored, vivid original paintwork in blue, black and terracotta is visible on the marbles.
But as pieces were dug up by amateurs, important archaeological information such as the layout of the mausoleum was lost and the builders' bulldozer shattered some sculptures.
Such funerary art is one of the main sources of information about the Etruscans, a mysterious people who lived in central Italy and were eventually absorbed into the Roman Empire. They left few written documents.
Visitors to the exhibition, which runs until March, can also see ceramics decorated with scenes of daily Roman life in black, terracotta and cream in the fourth century B.C. Apulian style.
Also on display is a 16th century painting by Lelio Orsi depicting the Greek myth of Leda and the swan, which was sold for around $1.5 million at auction house Sotheby's when it caught the attention of Italian police in 2008.
After the exhibition the objects stolen from churches, museums and private collections will be returned to their original owners, while those originating from illegal digs will be distributed to appropriate museums.
Editing by Gareth Jones