WASHINGTON — The United States returned seven stolen and looted artifacts to Italy on Thursday, including a rare Renaissance oil-on-copper painting and three pages ripped out of antique choir books.

Homeland Security Janet Napolitano formally signed over the items -- which also included a pair of 2,000-year-old ceramic vessels and a small Roman sculpture -- at a noon-hour ceremony in the Italian embassy.

"These beautiful objects belong to you, the people of Italy," said Napolitano, while Italian Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero hailed the objects' return as "a major event and a joint success."

Since 2007, the United States has recovered more than 2,000 artifacts from 23 countries as part of an ongoing international effort to combat a global trade in looted, stolen and illegally exported works of art.

"This is a major return. This is one of the more significant ones that we've done," said John Morton, director of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The handover was the happy outcome of four separate US investigations that began with tip-offs from Italy's paramilitary Carabinieri police, which combs through websites and auction catalogs to pinpoint missing artifacts.