NEW YORK – A 1,000-year-old marble antiquity – stolen from a Roman villa where Benito Mussolini once lived – was returned to Italian officials Friday.

The head of Dionysius, the Greek god of wine, went missing in 1983 from Villa Torlonia only to resurface in 2003 at a Christie’s auction with a $25,000 price tag.

When Christie’s got it, the auction house was suspicious about the piece and contacted the New York Police Department. Italian police and Interpol identified the curly haired head as a stolen antiquity.

After three years, the department’s major case squad was able to trace the statue back to a defunct Japanese museum that acquired it sometime before 1990 – but nothing beyond that.

“We know from experience in these kinds of cases how difficult it is to trace them back,” NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly said at a ceremony at the Italian Consulate on Park Ave. “The trails get murky and the stolen pieces simply show up in shops and auctions.”

Cops closed the case this year without arrests paving the way for the return since it was no longer needed as evidence.

Consul General Antonio Bandini said the recovery was part of a broader trend of museums, auction houses and private collectors being willing to return works of art, and artifacts found to be stolen.

In a recent case, the Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed to return 21 looted items back to Italy.

“We’re encouraged by the progress we have seen,” Bandini said. “We have detected an amount of cooperation that simply had not been there even a few years or even a few months ago.”

Dionysius’ head, severed from the body of the statute, will be returned to the Villa Torlonia for display. The villa, a series of early 1800s buildings that Mussolini used as a presidential palace in the late 1920s, has been restored and only last week opened to the public.

“I think the mayor of Rome will be pleased to know that while he was restoring the villa, work was being done here to return something that had once been there,” Bandini said.

(c) 2006, New York Daily News.

Visit the Daily News online at

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-04-22-06 1557EDT