Homeland Security transfers 51 ancient coins seized at Blaine border crossing to UW

By David Rasbach

The Bellingham Herald

Fifty-one ancient coins seized in 2017 at the U.S.-Canada border in Blaine and believed to have been illegally imported into the United States are being transferred Thursday from Homeland Security Investigations to the University of Washington.

“These 51 Greek Hellenistic and early Islamic coins had no legal providence associated with them to validate if they were lawfully acquired and imported to the United States,” a release from Homeland Security Investigations Pacific Northwest said. “Federal importation laws give (Homeland Security Investigations) Special Agents authority to take a leading role investigating crimes involving illicit importation and distribution of cultural property and art.

“When cultural property or art is seized, (Homeland Security Investigations) makes every effort to repatriate artifacts or find them appropriate institutional custodians if rightful ownership cannot be determined, such as with the University of Washington. UW requested the transfer of these ancient coins seized as a result of a joint investigation with (U.S. Customs and Border Patrol) in Blaine.”

In the spring of 2017, a suspect returned to the United States into Whatcom County through the Blaine border crossing after he was refused entry into Canada, according to a Homeland Security Investigations fact sheet on the coin transfer emailed to The Bellingham Herald by Homeland Security Investigations Pacific Northwest.

Customs and Border Protection searched the suspect’s vehicle and discovered the coins, which were found to be similar to ones found on the Red List of Afghanistan Antiquities at Risk, according to the fact sheet.

Homeland Security Investigations interviewed the suspect, who was not named in the fact sheet, and determined he did not have documentation that he owned the coins or showing they had been legally imported into the United States.

Homeland Security Investigations then consulted with experts, according to the fact sheet, and they determined the coins were authentic and showed signs of Bronze Disease — a form of corrosion that is an indication the coins had illegally been taken from the ground.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol then began the forfeiture process, the fact sheet states, and the suspect signed an agreement to abandon the coins. No government representatives from Afghanistan or any other countries claimed the coins, and on Aug. 3, 2017, they were legally forfeited to the U.S. government.

In 2019, the Curator of the Special Collections Center of the University of Washington Libraries petitioned the border patrol to donate the coins, the fact sheet reported, and on Thursday afternoon, Feb. 18, they will officially be transferred to the school in an event outside UW’s Suzzallo Library.

At UW the coins will be studied by local researchers and used to illustrate discussion in courses and highlight the problems of illegal excavation and antiques trade, according to the fact sheet.

“As a result of the dedicated efforts by (Homeland Security Investigations) Special Agents and (U.S. Customs and Border Patrol) Officers, the transfer of these coins will provide UW with an important opportunity to give students and researchers first-hand experience with antiquities they are unlikely to interact with elsewhere in their education,” the release read.

Homeland Security Investigations’ Cultural Property, Art and Antiques Program is tasked with returning looted cultural heritage and stolen artwork, according to the fact sheet, and it is intended to promote goodwill with other nations while protecting the world’s cultural heritage and knowledge of past civilizations.

Since 2007, Homeland Security Investigations has recovered and returned over 12,500 artifacts to more than 30 countries, according to the fact sheet, 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 a gold coffin to Egypt.