Saudi Ambassador to the United States Prince Turki Al-Faisal today accepted a large cache of ancient coins that were being returned to Saudi Arabia by the United States.
In 1994, a recreational diver who was working in the Kingdom took the coins from the site of a shipwreck in the Red Sea, about 100 yards off the Saudi coast. He smuggled the coins back to the United States with the intention of selling them.
An anonymous tip led to an investigation by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2004. An INTERPOL Red Notice also alerted law enforcement officials that the coins were stolen from a shipwreck in Saudi territorial waters.
Encrusted coins (Photo courtesy of ICE)
The ICE investigation led to a Key West, Florida man, who was communicating in chat rooms specializing in Islamic coins in order to learn how to restore them, assess their value and potentially attract buyers.
According to ICE records, agents began an undercover operation to retrieve the coins using the Internet. The man eventually admitted to taking the coins improperly and surrendered them to ICE agents in April 2005.
Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for ICE Julie L. Myers formally turned the coins over to Prince Turki in a ceremony at ICE headquarters in Washington today.
“Thieves that loot artifacts rob a culture of some of their most precious commodities -- their heritage and their history,” Myers said.
In remarks at the ceremony, Prince Turki thanked all of the agencies involved for their efforts to recover and return the priceless artifacts to Saudi Arabia, in particular ICE Special Agent Timothy Scott, who identified the suspect and recovered the coins.
The ambassador noted that exchanges such as these are indication of the depth of Saudi-US relations.
Experts who examined the coins speculated that they were from the 13th or 14th century, and that they possibly were on a trading vessel that sank in the Red Sea or belonged to pilgrims making their way to Makkah for the Hajj.
Of the coins, 803 are restored and some 132 lbs remain encrusted.
Restored coin (Photo courtesy of ICE)
“These coins are treasured artifacts that reflect the cultural heritage of humanity as well as Saudi Arabia’s unique history as an ancient trade center and as the birthplace of Islam,” stated the ambassador.
Prince Turki said that the coins would be displayed in the Saudi National Museum in Riyadh upon their return to the Kingdom.