Rare 'Quarter Shekel' coin minted at Temple Mount returned to Israel from US

The shekel was officially handed over by Americans to Israeli officials Monday during a repatriation ceremony in New York City.

 The rare Quarter Shekel coin returned to Israel (photo credit: ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY.)
The rare Quarter Shekel coin returned to Israel
(photo credit: ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY.)

One night two decades ago, in a valley outside Jerusalem, a group of looters dug up a startling piece of ancient Jewish history: A silver quarter shekel minted more than 2,000 years ago at the Temple Mount, one of Judaism’s holiest sites.

Israel doesn’t have a single one of these coins in its museums. But in 2017, this dime-sized relic appeared for sale at a coin show inside the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver.

Its value: $1 million. Now that prized relic is headed home.

The shekel was officially handed over to Israeli officials Monday during a repatriation ceremony in New York City, the result of a five-year global investigation that sent authorities on an ancient coin hunt from the Mile High City to Jerusalem.

“We are honored to return the Quarter Shekel, an exceedingly rare coin that has immense cultural value,” Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg Jr. said in a statement. His office’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit took over the case this year after agents from Homeland Security Investigations in 2017 seized the coin in Denver.

Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, in a statement, called the shekel “a stark reminder of the Jewish people’s millennia-old connection to the land of Israel.”

 The rare Quarter Shekel coin returned to Israel (credit: NAFTALI SHAVELSON) The rare Quarter Shekel coin returned to Israel (credit: NAFTALI SHAVELSON)

Where did the Quarter Shekel come from?

The shekel’s origins hark back to a dark time in Jewish history.

The Jews in AD 66, living under Roman rule, launched what became known as the “Great Revolt.”

As many as one million Jews were killed during the bitter feud, which included the Romans sacking the sacred temple in Jerusalem. The conflict ended only after the legendary siege and mass suicide atop Masada, where a small group of Jewish rebels killed themselves to avoid being taken by the Romans.

The coin, produced in AD 69 during the fourth year of fighting, was used less as currency and more for propaganda reasons: “To show that the Jewish people were a people,” said Greg Wertsch, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations in Denver.

These were expensive coins to produce, the agent said, and thus a rarity.

How the coin was stolen and brought back to Israel

The Israeli Antiquities Authority learned in 2002 that the shekel had been looted in the Ella Valley, a long, shallow swath of land outside Jerusalem believed to be the site of the famous David-versus-Goliath fight, according to the Manhattan DA’s office.

Over the next two decades, the shekel circulated within the illicit antiquities market, until it was smuggled from Israel to Jordan — and finally to London, investigators say.

From there, an unnamed person in 2017 used false provenance papers to export the prized object to the United States, where it was put up for sale at Heritage Auctions’ World Coins & Ancient Coins Signature Auction in Denver, authorities said.

“There were many reasons to believe that the coin was not his,” Wertsch said.

The seller told investigators that he bought several unwashed coins many years earlier and never really looked at them, Wertsch said. But recently, he told authorities that he realized he had an extremely valuable treasure on his hands.

“This sounds like the story of a grave robber,” Wertsch said, citing what he was told by an expert.

The silver artifact wasn’t on a watch list and the auction house didn’t have any reason to believe it to be stolen, the federal agent said.

No arrests have been made in the US over the item, Wertsch said. It’s unclear if Israeli or British authorities have taken anyone into custody.

Back in the summer of 2017, multiple media outlets, including The Denver Post, previewed the American Numismatic Association’s World’s Fair of Money, which included the ancient coins auction. They teased the valuables for sale — including early US  pennies or octagonal coins from 1900, forged with silver from the Cripple Creek mining district.

The official ceremony marking the coin's return to Israeli hands on September 12, 2022 (credit: NAFTALI SHULMAN)The official ceremony marking the coin's return to Israeli hands on September 12, 2022 (credit: NAFTALI SHULMAN)

Ancient currencies also would be marketed to attendees, The Post noted.

“A lot of the things we know about ancient civilizations — the things that are left to tell us about them — are from the coins they issued,” David Stone, a coin cataloger for Heritage Auctions, told The Post. “You can tell what someone from 1,000 years ago looked like from a coin.”

This shekel retains such cultural — and monetary — value because there are so few. The DA’s office said it knows of just two. Wertsch said that beside the one that will be returned to Israel, there are only three others of its kind. One sits in the British Museum in London. The other two are still in the wind — likely looted, he said.

“It’s just really nice when we can bring something home that has this value,” Wertsch said. “It has national value, cultural value, social value, religious value, political value. There’s just so much to it. It’s not just a random coin.”