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Smuggled Coin Returns to Israel

A 66-70 A.D. shekel. (Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

A 66-70 A.D. shekel. (Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

It can’t be over-emphasized that pedigree/provenance of a coin is becoming increasingly important.

On Sept. 13 one of four known First Revolt quarter shekel coins of 69 A.D. was surrendered to Israel Antiquities Authority Director Eli Eskosido, Consul General of Israel in New York Asaf Zamir, and Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg in a ceremony in Bragg’s New York office.

Eskosido said, “This is a historic achievement for the State of Israel and for the preservation of its cultural heritage assets, as this is only the second time they were ever looted and smuggled out of Israel [and then] were returned to the state,” adding ominously, “This is the beginning of a very positive and important trend for the restoration of cultural heritage assets.”

According to Manhattan District Attorney’s office information, it appears the coin may have been illegally excavated in the Ella Valley in 2002. The coin allegedly remained in the illicit antiquities market, being smuggled from Israel to Jordon and then on to London. In 2017 an unnamed person used forged provenance papers to export the coin to the United States. The coin was then sold in a Heritage Auctions World Coins & Ancient Coins Signature Auction in Denver.

The investigation, which took place over about five years, involved the US Department of Homeland Security, Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities, the United Kingdom’s New Scotland Yard, Jordan’s Department of Antiquities, New York’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, and the Israeli Antiquities Authority.

Several sources indicated the coin was not on any watch list and Heritage had no reason to suspect the coin was stolen or illegally imported.

The coin is cataloged as Hendin 1365 (David Hendin, Guide to Biblical Coins). According to Hendin, the coin is a silver quarter sheqel on which three palm branches tied together at their stalks appears on the obverse. The reverse depicts a Hebrew letter that stands for the number four surrounded by a wreath of palm branches, tied in X at the bottom.

The accompanying text indicates a single example is in the British Museum. The further text states, “After the year 2000, three additional examples of this coin, from the same dies, surfaced in the market.”

Eskosido’s statement regarding “restoration of cultural heritage assets” is not being taken lightly by museums, collectors, or by coin and antiquity dealers. The Manhattan DA’s office recently repatriated a group of terracotta sculptures representing a seated poet and two sirens known as the Poets and Sirens to Italy. The sculptures, valued at $8 million, have been removed from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The sculptures had been looted from a tomb near Taranto, Italy, then were smuggled and laundered by known trafficker Giovanni Franco Becchina. The museum later purchased the sculptures. The Getty consented to their repatriation.

The Manhattan DA’s office was also recently responsible for the repatriation of 16 antiquities valued at over $4 million to Egypt. Nine of the antiquities were seized from the private collection of Michael Steinhardt, a well-known ancient art collector. Five of the antiquities were seized from the Metropolitan Museum of Art pursuant to an investigation into the Dib-Simonian trafficking network, a reference to antiquities dealer Serop Simonian.

Simonian has been allegedly linked to the 2020 Hamburg Police (Germany) raid on the Dionysos Gallery of Ancient Coins and Antiquities. In late August several German museums were implicated in antiquities trafficking.

During 2021 Interpol’s Operation Pandora VI in Spain lead to the seizure of 91 ancient Roman gold coins illegally removed from an archaeological site.

Matthew Bogdanos, a retired US Marine colonel heads the Manhattan DA’s antiquities unit. A bronze star recipient, Bogdanos was previously the deputy director of the counterterrorism Joint Interagency Coordination Group that involved FBI, CIA, US Treasury, and other agencies under the US Central Command. Bogdanos led investigations into the looting of Baghdad’s Iraq Museum during the 2003 war. According to Bogdanos’ office, the unit has approximately 400 historical items to date during 2022.