American investigators returned a rare silver coin to Israel on Monday that they say was minted as a marker of independence during the Great Revolt against Roman oppression of A.D. 66-73 and centuries later was looted from an archaeological site in the Valley of Elah.
The coin was seized in 2017 when collectors tried to sell it at an auction in Denver, where it was listed as having an estimated value between $500,000 and $1 million. But it did not clear the legal hurdles to be returned to Israel until this summer.
Experts say the coin, a quarter-shekel piece featuring palm branches and a wreath and dated to A.D. 69, is among the rarest coins remaining from the bloody Jewish uprising against imperial Rome. The Roman response included the sacking and burning of the Temple Mount in A.D. 70 and, in A.D. 73, the demise of the last Jewish holdouts at Masada.
The minting of such coins by Jews during the rebellion was considered a major statement of sovereignty by people whom the Romans had forbidden from issuing silver coins.
Ilan Hadad, a numismatics investigator and archaeologist with the Israeli Antiquities Authority, called the coin “a national treasure” that “has strong religious and political symbolism to Jews and Christians around the world.”
“Coins like this were a very in-your-face declaration of independence by the lands of Israel,” he said. “They made them by scratching out the images of emperors on Roman silver coins and restamping them.”
The recovery of the coin, which was said to have been illegally excavated in 2002, came after years of searches in multiple countries that began with a tip from an informant in the West Bank and led to inquiries in Jordan and England as investigators tracked its whereabouts, Mr. Hadad said. It was returned to the Israeli consul general in a ceremony in New York at the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
While there may be a few thousand shekels and half shekels still in existence, the quarter shekel is much rarer because it was only produced in two of the five years of the revolt, experts said.
The recovered coin was described as one of four known quarter-shekel coins minted in the fourth year of the revolt. A second has been in the British Museum since the 1930s. The recovered coin and two others surfaced only recently during what Israeli authorities described as looting that took place in the Elah Valley area, the biblical site of the battle between David and Goliath. The location of the two others is unknown, but they are believed to be in private collections.
The trail of the coin ultimately led investigators to Denver, where it was listed for sale by Heritage Auctions in 2017. Agents with U.S. Homeland Security Investigations seized the coin while the sale was underway, Mr. Hadad said, but it would be several years before investigators were able to produce clear evidence it had been stolen, officials said.
In an email, Sam Spiegel, director of International Numismatics at Heritage Auctions, said his company had relied on the representation of a client in London who said he had inherited the coin from his father. Mr. Spiegel said the client had signed an agreement affirming he had clear title to the coin and that the auction house had been granted a British export license that allowed the coin to be brought to the United States.
“Shortly before the auction was to begin,” Mr. Spiegel said, “Homeland Security contacted us about the coin, and we fully cooperated by turning it over and supplying them with all the requested information.”
Officials did not identify the sellers of the coin but said the sellers had tried to block the confiscation, claiming that the item had been out of Israel for several years before Israel adopted a 1978 law declaring that all relics excavated from that point forward belonged to the state. Federal officials said the consignors had provided two sets of false provenance information as a way of justifying their possession of the coin.
Earlier this year, the Israeli government enlisted the help of the Manhattan district attorney’s office to make the case that the coin was provably stolen. The district attorney’s office has a special unit that focuses on antiquities trafficking and it determined it had jurisdiction because the coin had passed through Kennedy International Airport en route to Denver and had in recent years been stored by federal officials in New York.
In June, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos obtained a seizure warrant from a New York judge and confiscated the coin before the statute of limitations on prosecuting the theft expired last month.
Along with the false provenance letters, Mr. Bogdanos said in an interview that his office had obtained photographs of the coin encrusted with dirt that were evidence of its recent excavation and had been used to solicit business from illicit antiquities dealers.
David Hendin, an honorary curator for the American Numismatic Society and expert on Judaic coins who authenticated the quarter shekel for investigators, said many of the coins from the revolt were imprinted with patriotic slogans emphasizing independence like “shekel of Israel” or “Jerusalem the Holy.” This quarter shekel, he noted, however, carries only a simple design of three palm branches on the front, known as the obverse, and the number four in Hebrew script surrounded by a wreath on the reverse, marking the fourth year of the revolt.
At the time, there was a marked distinction in the treatment and use of bronze and silver coins. The Romans had not forbidden the Jews from issuing bronze coins, which were used for everyday purchases. But they prohibited them from making silver shekels, which were employed during higher commerce or for religious purposes like paying temple dues, he said.
Production of the coins stopped in A.D. 70, the year the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by Roman forces under Titus. Now they serve to provide us with incremental but important information about the ancient society that made them, experts said.
“It was a very critical time in both Christianity and Judaism and everything we can know about that period is going to come from small clues,” Mr. Hendin said.