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Mysterious coins confiscated at Blaine border crossing transferred to UW

Students at the University of Washington in March 2020. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

The University of Washington has received 51 mysterious, ancient coins that were confiscated at the Blaine border crossing three years ago.

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In spring 2017, a suspect returned to the United States in Blaine after he was refused entrance into Canada. A search of the suspect’s vehicle by U.S. Customs and Border Protection resulted in the discovery of 51 ancient coins that appeared to be antiquities. According to a release from the Department of Homeland Security about the case, some of the coins were determined to be similar to coins found on the Red List of Afghanistan Antiquities at Risk.

Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Pacific Northwest conducted an interview with the suspect. He had no documentation for the coins to prove they were legally imported into the United States, or that they belonged to him.

The coins were determined to be authentic by HSI and subject matter experts.

“Some of the bronze coins had what they would call ‘bronze disease,’ which is indicative that they were illegally excavated from various sites,” the Department of Homeland Security’s Robert Hammer told KIRO Radio.

“Were they in some sort of temple? Were they in a market? Were they in somebody’s home? We’ve lost that because they weren’t excavated in the context that these coins were discovered,” he added.

Hammer is the Special Agent in Charge for this case, and oversees HSI operations in the Pacific Northwest.

Since no owner has come forward, the 51 ancient coins, suspected of being illegally smuggled out of Afghanistan, now belong to the University of Washington.

In 2019, the curator of the Special Collections Center at the UW Libraries petitioned for the donation of the coins, in part to be used for research and to highlight awareness of the illegal antiquities market.

When cultural property or art is seized, HSI says it “makes every effort to repatriate artifacts or find them appropriate institutional custodians,” the UW in this case, if rightful ownership is not determined.

Federal laws give HSI the authority to take a leading role in investigating these types of crimes, and customs laws allow HSI to seize cultural property and art brought into the United States illegally.

In terms of the ancient coins, Hammer says they are worth thousands of dollars on the black market.

“They’re really priceless in terms of their value and historical value, and I think there was a notional value of multi-thousands of dollars worth of coins on the black market,” Hammer said.

The UW will work to learn more about the Greek, Islamic, and mid-Eastern coins, which date back several hundred years BC.

KIRO Radio’s Diane Duthweiler contributed to this report.

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