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Ancient Greek Coins Seized in Chicago to be Repatriated to Greece

21 ancient Greek coins were seized at theO'Hare International Airport in Chicago
21 ancient Greek coins were seized at the O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. Credit: HSI Chicago / Twitter

Twenty-one ancient Greek coins were discovered and apprehended by Customs and Border Control agents at the O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.

On December 21, the ancient coins were passed on to the Greek Consul General in Chicago, Emmanuel Koubarakis, during a ceremony at the Homeland Security Investigations office in Lombard, Illinois.

The coins were discovered by customs officers in two separate packages that were sent from Austria. The antiquities were likely stolen or plundered in Greece years before the package ended up in Chicago.

Seizure of the ancient Greek coins

“This is a very big deal. This is the largest repatriation of Greek coins in recent history for Homeland Security Investigations,” said the Director of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Sean Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald also noted that initiatives to detect and seize illegally acquired antiquities are often multi-agency efforts. The Chicago Homeland Security office has its own unit assigned to the task. The unit cooperates with the State Department’s Cultural Heritage Center, the Smithsonian Institution, the FBI, and Customs officers to train agents.

Emmanuel Koubarakis, the Greek consul general in Chicago thanked the HSI and emphasized the cultural importance of the ancient coins to Greece.

“On behalf of the Hellenic Republic, I would like to express my appreciation and commend the competent American authorities for their diligence and dedication in tracking illicit antiquities,” Koubarakis commented.

“I would like to thank the United States for the partnership and the repatriation of 21 coins to the source country, Greece. These items are important to our cultural heritage,” the Consul general also said.

Koubarakis said that the ancient coins would probably be displayed in a museum in Greece.

Cases like this are not uncommon. According to the HSI, over 20,000 antiquities and historically valuable artistic pieces have been seized in the US and returned to over 40 countries of origin.

“This is really a theft and a pillaging of cultural heritage,” said Fitzgerald, “These countries, they want our help, and they need our help to bring back their history for them.”

Ancient Greek coinage

The oldest Greek coins discovered thus far were minted in about 640 BC and were found under the temple of Artemis in the city of Ephesus. The very first coins in the world are believed to have been minted in 600 BC in the Kingdom of Lydia.

Ancient Greek colonists founded numerous city-states in Asia Minor, where the Lydian Kingdom was also located. The Greeks and Lydians in the region engaged in both trade and war.

The ancient Greeks did not mark their coins with numbers to indicate value. Instead, the value was established by weight and material. For example, a heavier gold coin would be worth more than a lighter bronze one.

Coin designs varied immensely between different Greek polities, and also between the Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman periods. Greek coins featured gods, mythological heroes, important people, local produce, or inscriptions.

Some Greek coins even featured puns. On the Greek island of Milos, the local coinage bore the image of an apple. This was a wordplay pun that made light of the fact that the island’s name sounded like the Greek word for apple, mílo (μήλο).

Of the 21 coins recovered in Chicago, the oldest amongst them dates back to around 500 BC.

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