The repatriation of a 2000 year-old marble head of Rome’s first emperor to Italy on Tuesday (14 June) has been hailed as “a powerful symbol of an inclusive and multicultural Europe”.

Stolen in the 1970s and trafficked out of the country, the sculpted head was only recently declared missing by staff at the Civic Museum in Nepi when they performed an inventory check. Subsequent studies by archaeologist, Germana Vatta, led to its discovery in the collection of the Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire in Brussels.

The Belgian museum had displayed the head in its portrait gallery ever since it bought it in good faith from a private antiques dealer in Zurich in 1975. The Italian Foreign Ministry has not suggested who might have originally stolen the artefact.

When Ms Vatta reported her finding to Italian police, an investigation was made and a meeting convened between the head of the antiquity section of the Belgian museum and the Superintendence of Archaeology of Lazio and southern Etruria. As soon as it was established that the sculpture was in fact the missing Nepi head, the Belgian museum agreed to immediately return it to Italy.

Considered one of the earliest known depictions of Augustus, who ruled Rome between 21 BC and AD 14, the marble head is thought to have formed part of a statue of the emperor wearing a toga. The hairstyle indicates that it was sculpted some time before 27 BC when the young Octavius took the name Augustus and became emperor.

The sculpture is one of many stolen artefacts to be returned to Italy in accordance with international agreements such as the UNIDROIT Convention 1995 and the UN General Assembly’s 2014 ‘International Guidelines for Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Responses with Respect to Trafficking in Cultural Property and Other Related Offences’.

At a restitution ceremony to mark the return of the sculpture to Italy, Deputy Foreign Minister Mario Giro told those gathered that “Today we don’t just have the retrieval… We are celebrating the importance the memories of these artefacts have for the future of humanity.”