Renaissance: Austrian interior minister hands over recovered precious work of art to culture minister

A cherished Renaissance figurine, stolen nearly three years ago and just recovered, returned to the care of Austria's Culture Ministry on Sunday.

"Our joy is extraordinary," Culture Minister Elisabeth Gehrer said as she took possession of the figurine _ the 16th century, gold-plated "Saliera," or salt cellar sculpture by Florentine master Benvenuto Cellini.

Interior Minister Liesel Prokop turned over the Saliera, valued at Ђ50 million (US$60 million), the day after it was recovered by police. A 50-year-old man turned himself in to police on Friday after police released photos of him, identifying him as a suspect.

The Austria Press Agency reported that the 26-centimeter (10-inch) masterpiece was slightly damaged after being buried in a wooden case north of Vienna, but quoted officials of Vienna's Art History Museum as saying it would soon again be part of the museum's regular collection after restoration work.

The buried sculpture was found Saturday near Zwettl, a town about 90 kilometers (55 miles) north of Vienna.

Police declined to identify the suspect, but said he had technical background _ he installed alarm systems for a living _ that would have helped in the theft of the poorly secured work of art. They said he confessed to the crime Saturday.

He was photographed by a surveillance camera while buying a cell phone that was then used to send a text message to police during a failed attempt last year to ransom the figurine, the daily Salzburger Nachrichten reported.

Authorities have worked to track down the Saliera since it was stolen from a museum showcase May 11, 2003. The ornately carved sculpture, with gold, ebony and enamel, features a male figure holding a trident confronting a female figure. A small vessel meant to hold salt is placed next to the male figure.

It was created between 1540 and 1543 on commission from King Francis I of France, commonly considered that nation's first Renaissance monarch, the AP reports.

The theft shook Austria, in part because it revealed serious security gaps at the museum.

The thief broke in from scaffolding on the second floor of the museum, smashed a window and a glass showcase, removed the figurine and apparently left the way he came. Museum officials subsequently said that guards heard an alarm but discounted it as false.

A.M.