Ancient Coin Made in Defiance of Roman Rule Returns to Israel

U.S. officials found the stolen coin at a Denver auction in 2017

Israeli quarter shekel coin
Earlier this week, American investigators returned a looted rare quarter shekel silver coin to Israel. Israel Antiquities Authority

In 66 C.E., Jews living under Roman rule were forbidden from issuing silver coins. That didn’t stop them: Minting silver shekel coins became a bold assertion of independence against the oppressive Roman Empire during the Great Revolt, a Jewish rebellion that lasted until 70 C.E. 

Many of these silver shekels have been lost to history. Earlier this week, American investigators returned one of them to Israel.

Officials have spent years searching for the coin, which is thought to have been illegally excavated from an archaeological site in 2002. In 2017, they located and seized the coin from an auction in Denver, where it was valued between $500,000 and $1 million. Now, five years later, officials have confirmed that the coin was looted and cleared it to travel back to where it was minted.

The coin is “a national treasure” with “strong religious and political symbolism,” Ilan Hadad, an investigator and archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, tells the New York Times’ Tom Mashberg and Graham Bowley.

All existing coins minted during the Great Revolt are valuable to historians and scholars, but the recovered coin came from a particularly valuable bunch: It is one of the rare quarter shekels, which—unlike shekels and half shekels—were minted during only two years of the revolt. Only one other quarter shekel silver coin from this era is known to exist, and it has been in the British Museum’s collection for a century. Per the Associated Press (AP), several others are likely in private collections.

“Coins like this were a very in-your-face declaration of independence by the lands of Israel,” Hadad tells the Times.

The recovered coin was minted in 69 C.E., during the fourth year of the Great Revolt. The following year, in 70 C.E., the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the ancient Temple Mount.

Though Homeland Security officials originally seized the quarter shekel coin, the Manhattan district attorney’s office took over the case earlier this year. Earlier this week, the office announced that it had held a repatriation ceremony with the Israeli consul general.

“We are honored to return the quarter shekel, an exceedingly rare coin that has immense cultural value,” said District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg Jr. in a statement. “In just this year alone we have repatriated nearly 400 antiquities to countries all over the world, and look forward to many more of these ceremonies in the future.”

The case was a natural extension of the office’s recent work, which has included numerous high-profile instances of smuggled antiquities. In August, Spencer Woodman and Malia Politzer of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) reported that the district attorney’s office has obtained nine warrants to seize stolen objects from the Metropolitan Museum of Art since 2017.

“The pace is picking up,” Matthew Bogdanos, an assistant Manhattan district attorney who leads the antiquities trafficking unit that orchestrated the Met seizures, told the ICIJ. “Expect it to pick up more.”