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Rare, stolen 2,000-year-old silver coin returned to Israeli authorities in US

Quarter-shekel minted in 69CE was smuggled out of country to black market; international probe results in it finally being restored to Israel Antiquities Authority

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

A rare quarter shekel silver coin, minted in 69 CE, that was handed over to Israeli authorities in New York, September 12, 2022. (Israel Antiquities Authority)
A rare quarter shekel silver coin, minted in 69 CE, that was handed over to Israeli authorities in New York, September 12, 2022. (Israel Antiquities Authority)

A very rare ancient silver coin, minted as an act of defiance by Jewish rebels against the Roman Empire over 2,000 years ago and plundered from Israel in 2002, was returned to Israeli authorities in New York on Monday following an international recovery effort.

The quarter-shekel coin is from the fourth year of the Jewish Great Revolt against the Romans, which took place in 66-73 CE, the Israel Antiques Authority said in a Tuesday statement. It was minted in 69 CE, a year before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by Roman authorities seeking to suppress the Jewish revolt against their rule.

A handover ceremony was held at the office of the Manhattan district attorney. Among those who attended were Israel Antiquities Authority director Eli Eskosido, Consul General of Israel in New York Asaf Zamir, Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan, and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

“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,” Eskosido said. “This is the beginning of a very positive and important trend for the restoration of cultural heritage assets.”

Zamir called the coin “a stark reminder of the Jewish people’s millennia-old connection to the land of Israel.”

The repatriated coin was among a hoard found by Palestinian looters in 2002 in the Elah Valley area. It was smuggled out of the country, passing through illicit antiquities markets in Israel, Jordan and the UK. In London, false paperwork was used to export the coin to the US, where in 2017 it was offered for sale at the Heritage Auction’s World Coins & Ancient Coins Signature Auction, in Denver, Colorado.

The IAA spent two decades trying to track down the coin and earlier this year, by working together with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, was able to gather enough evidence to execute a seizure warrant, and a court order for it to be returned to the State of Israel.

R-L: lan Hadad, inspector in charge of commerce at the Israel Antiquities Authority, IAA director Eli Eskosido, and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, at a ceremony to return to Israel a rare silver quarter shekel coin minted in 69 CE, held in New York, September 12, 2022. (Naftali Shulman/Israel Antiquities Authority)

The investigation saw cooperation with the US Department of Homeland Security, Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities, the UK’s New Scotland Yard, and Jordan’s Department of Antiquities.

Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, chief of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, said the repatriation of the coin “represents a cherished piece of history finally going home. But it also represents an equally extraordinary partnership between New York’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit and the Israeli Antiquities Authority.”

That cooperation “should be used as a model in recovering pillaged cultural heritage around the world,” he said.

Erdan, the envoy to the UN, said the coin “is evidence of the eternal bond between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel” and would serve to dispel “the lies of our enemies” who want to “hide the history of our people and erase our connection to the Land of Israel.”

The Roman Empire kept a tight control over coinage, allowing local rulers to mint only bronze coins, depending on how important they were to the central government, the IAA said. Producing silver coins was a limited privilege granted to a smaller number of cities.

“Because of this, the minting of silver coins by the leaders of the Great Revolt was in fact a declaration of independence by the Jews in the land of Israel, a statement against the mighty empire that stood before them,” explained Ilan Hadad, archaeologist and inspector in charge of commerce at the Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Ilan Hadad, inspector in charge of commerce at the Israel Antiquities Authority, holds a rare quarter shekel coin that was returned to Israel in New York, September 12, 2022. (Miri Bar Israel Antiquities Authority)

Many rebel silver coins were struck over imperial silver coins, with Jewish motifs covering the emperors’ faces.

“This gave the coin a much greater symbolic value than the monetary value of the coin itself,” Hadad said in the statement.

The returned coin is only the fourth of its kind known in the world, and no such coins have been found in situ in archaeological excavations. One similar coin was acquired in the 1930s by the British Museum, and about three more unofficially “circulate” in the antiquities black market and among various collectors, the IAA said.

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