Coins seized at Canada-U.S. border destined for Washington university

More than three years after being recovered from a vehicle at the Canada-U.S. border in Blaine, Wash., dozens of ancient coins were handed over to the University of Washington this February.

In 2017, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers found the Greek Hellenistic and early Islamic coins in an unidentified person’s vehicle after he or she was refused entry into Canada. The officers determined the coins were similar to ones found in the Red List of Afghanistan Antiquities at Risk, published by the International Council of Museums.

Agents with the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) later determined the person in possession of the coins had no ownership documentation. The coins also showed signs of “bronze disease,” a form of corrosion that could indicate they were illegally unearthed. While the unidentified person agreed to abandon the coins, no government representatives from other countries claimed them, so they were legally forfeited to the U.S. government, according to a Feb. 19 report from the Associated Press.

“Illegal smuggling of cultural antiquities is not a victimless crime,” said Special Agent in Charge Robert Hammer, who oversees HSI operations in the Pacific Northwest. “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.”

Brian Humphrey (left), the director of field operations for CBP in Seattle, and Special Agent in Charge Robert Hammer, who oversees HSI operations in the Pacific Northwest, display some of the recovered coins.


On Feb. 18, the coins were handed over to representatives of the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.

“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,” Hammer added.

In a statement, HSI said its officers “consulted with subject matter experts, who determined the coins were authentic.”

“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.”

Sandra Kroupa, a curator with the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections, agreed the coins offer historical insight into “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.”

“Beyond their value as currency, ancient coins like these represent the beginning of communication and bookmaking,” added Kroupa. “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.”


While HSI’s “first choice is to repatriate these artifacts to their point of origin and return history home where it belongs,” Hammer said agents are sometimes unable to determine the rightful owner of cultural property.

In the latter case, “the next best thing is to find them appropriate institutional custodians, such as with the University of Washington,” Hammer added.

Following the Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Program, HSI works to return a nation’s looted cultural heritage or stolen artwork and promotes goodwill with foreign governments and citizens to protect the world’s cultural heritage and knowledge of past civilizations, according to a statement issued by HSI. Once a cultural property investigation is complete, HSI co-ordinates the return of smuggled objects or artifacts to their rightful owners through its 80 attaché offices in 53 countries.

“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,” said Hammer.

HSI 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. 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, added the HSI statement. In that 14-year span, HSI has recovered and returned more than 12,500 artifacts to more than 30 countries.

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