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U.S. Returns ‘Priceless’ Ancient Coins to Greece at an NHM Ceremony

Ancient coins US Greece
Federal agents from Homeland Security Investigations hand over the ancient Greek coins to Greek Ambassador in the US, Alexandra Papadopoulou and John Calamos, Founder and Chairman of the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago. Credit:  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

The US has returned dozens of stolen ancient coins to Greece in what is the largest collection of its kind to be intercepted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and repatriated.

Homeland Security Investigations returned the 51 Greek coins to representatives from Greece and the National Hellenic Museum (NHM) in a repatriation ceremony that took place at the NHM, the second-oldest American institution dedicated to displaying and celebrating the cultural contributions of Greeks and Greek-Americans.

The Ambassador of Greece to the United States Alexandra Papadopoulou, Consul General Emmanuel Koubarakis and Consul Georgia Tasiopoulou were among the guests to receive the repatriated coins in last week’s event.

“This is a successful example of how when we join forces, we can make miracles,” said Papadopoulou.

“As these coins get back to Greece where they belong, I’m sure it will make an exciting, powerful display as part of our culture, as part of our shared identity and as part of our close relationship with the United States.”

Some of the ancient Greek coins returning to Greece. Credit:  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

The ancient Greek coins were seized by CBP during four separate shipments as they entered the United States, after the shippers and consignees were unable to provide proper documentation of ownership.

“Trafficking in antiquities is a multibillion-dollar criminal enterprise, but when traffickers steal these antiquities from a country, they’re robbing from the cultural heritage of a nation — solely for their potential to generate profit,” said HSI Chicago special agent in charge R. Sean Fitzgerald.

“It is often extremely difficult to put a specific monetary value on an ancient historical coin,” Fitzgerald added. “That notwithstanding, as tokens of the world’s oldest democracy, Greece’s cultural property — in HSI’s view — is considered priceless.”

Ancient Greek coins

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: the island’s name sounded like the Greek word for apple, mílo (μήλο).


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