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February 19, 2021Seattle, United StatesCultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations

HSI Pacific Northwest investigation, CBP seizure result in transfer of 51 ancient coins to University of Washington for historical research

SEATTLE – A Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) probe and Customs and Border Protection seizure resulted in the transfer of 51 Greek Hellenistic and early Islamic coins to the University of Washington Libraries in a ceremony hosted on the UW campus, Thursday.

“As a result of the dedicated efforts by HSI Special Agents, CBP Officers and the University of Washington Libraries, the transfer of these coins will provide a rare opportunity to students, researchers and the community to have first-hand experience with antiquities they are unlikely to interact with elsewhere,” said Special Agent in Charge Robert Hammer, who oversees HSI operations in the Pacific Northwest. “Illegal smuggling of cultural antiquities is not a victimless crime. The countries these items belong to and are stolen from are victims. Society as a whole is victimized when we lose these pieces of history to a private collector’s coffee table. HSI will continue to work aggressively with CBP to seize stolen antiquities and return them to either their rightful country of origin or a key academic partner like the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections for the safekeeping of the pieces of history.”

These coins are now housed at the University of Washington.

“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.

The rare antiquities were seized at the port of entry in Blaine in 2017 after an individual traveling into Canada was refused entrance at the border and attempted to return to the United States. The individual in possession of the coins had no legal provenance to validate if they were lawfully acquired and imported to the United States. HSI conducted a consensual interview with the suspect and determined he had no documentation showing the antique coins legally belonged to him. A cursory examination and research determined some of the coins appeared similar to coins found on the Red List of Afghanistan Antiquities at Risk and no government representative from Afghanistan (or elsewhere) made claim to the coins.

HSI consulted with subject matter experts, who determined the coins were authentic. Based on the authentication of the experts, CBP began the forfeiture process.

“These coins were obtained due to some very astute CBP Officers,” said Brian Humphrey, Director of Field Operations for CBP in Seattle. “This is not something just anyone would have in their everyday possession and the officers who recovered these coins knew they had something that was clearly out of the ordinary. This is a great example of how CBP Officers not only work vigilantly to protect the U.S. from threats to national security, but also strive to enforce a variety of laws. In this case, working with our partners in HSI, we were able to help preserve these artifacts for the enjoyment of generations to come.”

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

“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.”

The University of Washington Libraries petitioned CBP 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.

“We are grateful for the opportunity to add these very unique coins to our collections,” said Kroupa. “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 HSI’s portfolio. 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 Hammer.

HSI’s Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Program

HSI Special Agents are trained in a partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Cultural Heritage Center and the Smithsonian Institution on the identification, authentication and handling of these objects and artifacts, which supports their return to their rightful owners through cultural repatriation. Since 2007, this collaboration has resulted in the training of more than 400 law enforcement personnel who are responsible for investigating these crimes and identifying and handling cultural property.

Once a cultural property investigation is complete, HSI coordinates the return of smuggled objects or artifacts to their rightful owners. HSI’s International Operations, through its 80 attaché offices in 53 countries, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations, and is committed to pursuing a strategy to combat transnational organized crime related to the illicit trafficking of cultural artifacts by targeting high-priority organizations and strengthening international law enforcement partnerships.

HSI 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.

HSI encourages the public to report suspected child predators and any suspicious activity through its toll-free Tip Line at 1-866-DHS-2423.