World Coins

Confiscated coins at Canadian border become opportunity

The 2017 seizure of 51 Greek Hellenistic and early Islamic coins by Customs and Border Patrol agents and a subsequent probe by Homeland Security Investigations led to the coins being transferred to the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.

The ancient coins were seized at the port of entry in Blaine, Washington, when an individual traveling into Canada was refused entry to that country. Upon his attempt to return to the United States, a request was made by the U.S. government for the individual to prove the coins were lawfully acquired and legally imported to the United States. According to the U.S. government, a consensual interview determined the individual in possession of the coins could not provide documentation of ownership. Some of the coins were determined to appear similar to coins found on the Red List of Afghanistan Antiquities at Risk.

Homeland Security consulted with subject matter experts, a press release from the agency states, who determined the coins were authentic and showed signs of bronze disease, which officials said is an indication the coins were taken from the ground illegally. Based on the authentication of the experts, Customs and Border Patrol began the forfeiture process.

Following additional investigation, the suspect signed an abandonment agreement and the coins were legally forfeited to the United States government.

The University of Washington Libraries petitioned Customs and Border Patrol in 2019 for donation of the coins. Faculty plan to use the coins to highlight awareness of illegal excavation and the antiquities trade; discuss the societies in which they were created and circulated; and illuminate the complex issues of cultural heritage raised by modern antiquities trade.

“The coins provide a look at historical materials from an area of the world underrepresented in our Libraries’ historical resources and signify the importance of expanding our commitment to inclusion of all possible cultures throughout history within our collections,” said Sandra Kroupa, Book Arts and Rare Book Curator for University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.

“We are grateful for the opportunity to add these very unique coins to our collections,” Kroupa said. “UW Special Collections holds many historically significant artifacts that have been found and come to us from donors who want the items to be shared and studied for the public good. Beyond their value as currency, ancient coins like these represent the beginning of communication and bookmaking. They reveal important historical information that help us understand the culture and politics from a specific time period. When a student can hold 3,000 years of history in their hand, there is no substitute for that in the learning environment.”

The Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Program is unique to Homeland Security Investigations’ portfolio. According to U.S. officials, returning a nation’s looted cultural heritage or stolen artwork, promotes goodwill with foreign governments and citizens, while significantly protecting the world’s cultural heritage and knowledge of past civilizations.

“When coins like these are illegally excavated and smuggled into the U.S., we lose the context of what they meant and the rich history they hold. But, thanks to the strong partnership between HSI, CBP and UW Libraries, the history held within these rescued artifacts will be passed along to inspire future students and academic research,” concluded special agent in charge Robert Hammer, who oversees Homeland Security Investigations operations in the Pacific Northwest.

“Our first choice is to repatriate these artifacts to their point of origin and return history home where it belongs,” Hammer said. “When cultural property like this is seized and HSI is unable to determine rightful ownership, the next best thing is to find them appropriate institutional custodians, such as with the University of Washington.”

Homeland Security Investigations has recovered and returned over 12,500 artifacts to more than 30 countries since 2007, including paintings from France, Germany, Poland and Austria; cultural artifacts from China and Cambodia; dinosaur fossils from Mongolia; an illuminated manuscript from Italy; a pair of royal Korean seals, ancient Peruvian ceramics, and very recently, an ancient gold coffin which was repatriated to Egypt.

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