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Archaeology

Massive bust of illegal antiquities trade seizes 1,800 coins and ancient artifacts

Man from central Israel suspected of smuggling thousands of priceless treasures abroad for years through an online store

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Some of the ancient coins seized in a massive illegal trade bust on May 15, 2022 in Modi'in. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Some of the ancient coins seized in a massive illegal trade bust on May 15, 2022 in Modi'in. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Some of the ancient coins seized in a massive illegal trade bust on May 15, 2022. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Some of the ancient coins seized in a massive illegal trade bust on May 15, 2022. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Antique coins were incorporated into the pendants in order to sell them as jewelry seized in a massive illegal trade bust on May 15, 2022 in Modi'in. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Antique coins were incorporated into the pendants in order to sell them as jewelry seized in a massive illegal trade bust on May 15, 2022 in Modi'in. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Shimon Bar Kochba coin seized in a massive illegal trade bust on May 15, 2022 in Modi'in. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Shimon Bar Kochba coin seized in a massive illegal trade bust on May 15, 2022 in Modi'in. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Silver shekel coin from 67CE seized in a massive illegal trade bust on May 15, 2022 in Modi'in. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Silver shekel coin from 67CE seized in a massive illegal trade bust on May 15, 2022 in Modi'in. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Statue of god Hermes seized in a massive illegal trade bust on May 15, 2022 in Modi'in. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Statue of god Hermes seized in a massive illegal trade bust on May 15, 2022 in Modi'in. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)

In one of the biggest busts in Israeli history, the Israel Antiquities Authority’s theft prevention unit has recovered over 1,800 ancient artifacts from an unlicensed dealer in the central Israeli city of Modiin. Mostly coins and jewelry, the artifacts also included cuneiform tablets and bronze statuettes.

The items were seized on Sunday after a judge granted a wide-ranging search warrant of the dealer’s private home.

IAA antiquities’ trade supervision Ilan Haddad told The Times of Israel on Thursday that the IAA periodically checks all online antiquities auction platforms, including eBay, as well as new online storefronts out of Israel. The Modiin-based suspect, a man in his 50-60s, was identified through his online store, which was linked to an Israeli IP address.

According to an IAA press release on Thursday, the IAA unit searched the man’s home with the help of Modiin police. In the course of his interrogation, the suspect admitted to illegally trading, smuggling abroad, and purchasing illegally excavated coins from pirated digs in the West Bank. It is assumed that thousands of coins have made it overseas.

Haddad likened the capture of the suspect to that of a mafia boss. “The soldiers on the ground are the little fish, and, essentially like the mafia, the money is the engine that pulls the train,” he said. The unit is working to expose those who carried out illegal excavations and took the coins from the ground.

Among the seized items are hundreds of rare coins, some of them dating from the Persian and Hasmonean periods, several minted during the Great Revolt, and, tied to Thursday’s holiday of Lag B’Omer, coins inscribed with the Jewish leader Shimon Bar Kochba.

Dozens of the seized coins were found inside addressed postal envelopes, awaiting shipment.

Haddad said it is impossible to know where the items are from, but assumes that many of the coins are from the West Bank. “If we don’t arrest someone at the site, there is no context for the artifacts and no way to accurately place them,” he said.

Some of the ancient coins seized in a massive illegal trade bust on May 15, 2022. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Specific details of the suspect and the ongoing investigation are still under wraps, but Haddad confirmed that the Modiin home was the base of the illegal trade and that the suspect has presumably been participating in this trade a long time.

“He is knowledgeable in archaeology, knows how to clean the coins and price the items. He is very professional,” said Haddad.

Among the items seized on Sunday is a silver “shekel” minted during the Great Revolt in 67 CE. The coin was discovered half-cleaned in the suspect’s study, according to the IAA press release. One side bears the inscription “Holy Jerusalem” and a bunch of pomegranates. The other side is inscribed with “Shekel Yisrael Year Two” above a trophy.

Silver shekel coin from 67CE seized in a massive illegal trade bust on May 15, 2022 in Modi’in. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Haddad said he and the entire theft prevention unit were working around the clock to stop thieves who are destroying archaeological sites, but without the backup of legal deterrence, they have no teeth. According to the Antiquities Law, the suspect could face up to two years in prison. But this sentence is almost never handed down, he said.

“Judges tend to be lenient. After all, we’re not talking about rape or murder. But we hope for a punishment that will deter others from participating in this collective theft of our country’s heritage and the heritage of the entire Jewish people,” said Haddad.

Statue of god Hermes seized in a massive illegal trade bust on May 15, 2022 in Modi’in. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Haddad appealed to the public to help the unit stop this illegal trade, including hikers who see something suspicious on the ground or individuals who are approached by dealers. But his true target is the authorities.

“If we can raise the awareness with judges and legislators about the importance of these antiquities to the country, and to the Jewish people, things may change. Let’s stop letting our heritage be sold under our feet. This is our story, but soon we won’t have anything left to help tell it,” said Haddad.

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