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Looters Grab Byzantine Era Gold Coins
By Richard Giedroyc, World Coin News
January 07, 2014

This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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The old saying ‘you can’t take it with you’ not only applies to taking worldly goods with you into the afterlife, but it also applies to archaeological objects including coins if you are in Israel.

The latest proof of this is an incident reported in the Nov. 18 Jerusalem Post newspaper. One man was reported to have been arrested, while five more were being sought following an illegal attempt to unearth what the newspaper called “Byzantine-era gold coins” at an ancient site near the Sorek Basin in the Judean Mountains.

The six men were reported to authorities when they were seen approaching the ruins of a Byzantine church late in the evening, according to Antiquities Authority Theft Prevention Unit spokesman Uzi Rotstein.

The man arrested was identified as living in the Husan village. According to the Jerusalem Post, “The inspector said that during questioning the apprehended suspect admitted they were looking for gold coins in the area, and told him his accomplices hailed from Idna village, south of the Hebron Hills.”

According to Deputy Director of the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery Dr. Eitan Klein, “The Judean Mountains in general, and Sorek Basin in particular, are rich in archeological sites which illustrate the rich historical and cultural history of Israel.”

It is this wealth of coins and other artifacts that attract smugglers, which is why the Antiquities Law of the State of Israel of 1978 was put into force in the first place.

According to Article 2(c), “Where an antiquity is discovered or found in Israel after the coming into force of this law, it shall within borders fixed by the Director of Antiquities become the property of the State.”

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For practical purposes this law nationalizes all antiquities found in Israel, including coins. Coins and other artifacts sold in licensed stores must have been unearthed prior to 1978 and have been either resold or bequeathed since that date. Any transfer of such items from either a private collection or from a museum requires the approval of the Director of Antiquities.

Authorized dealers can provide customers with a certificate of authenticity. Many tourists don’t understand they must also get an export permit if they plan to take their purchase out of the country. Each object is individually registered, although both archaeologists and dealers agree it is easy to circumvent the law.

Although the antiquities law is meant to protect archaeological dig sites as well as the relics to be found at them, it has driven much of the antiquities trade underground while encouraging counterfeiting to fill collector and tourist trade demand. Sources indicated the Israel Antiquities Authority has a list of more than 14,000 sites, however since 1967 more than 11,000 of these sites have been looted.

Israel’s laws may appear to be harsh, but compared to the antiquity laws of other nearby nations Israel’s laws are liberal. In many of the bordering countries all antiquities, including coins, belong to the state. The state in most of these countries does not reimburse the finder.

It is challenging to identify the origins of many ancient coins since coins are a mass-produced item that was often traded across borders. The 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property further restricts the international antiquities and ancient coin trade. Once again an incident in Israel should remind collectors they need to be able to document the provenance of the coins in their collections.

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