Monday, March 6, 2006

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has returned to the Saudi government more than 130 pounds of ancient coins that agents seized from a man who had removed them illegally from a shipwreck in the Red Sea.

“Artifacts such as these coins are not trinkets that can be pilfered and sold to the highest bidder,” said Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Julie L. Myers, who heads ICE. “To their rightful owners, these artifacts are priceless items that are cherished and proudly displayed as a testament to their cultural history.”

A tip by a confidential informant to ICE in Miami resulted in an investigation that led agents to a Key West, Fla., man who admitted to taking the coins improperly while spearfishing in an area near Jidda in Saudi Arabia in 1994, said ICE spokesman Marc Raimondi.

Records show that the Florida man, who was not identified, communicated in Internet chat rooms that focused on Islamic coins in order to learn how to restore the coins and solicit buyers. Agents engaged the man by e-mail, eventually identifying themselves as ICE agents and later confronting him in person.

Mr. Raimondi said the man later voluntarily surrendered the coins to the agents. Prosecutors in Miami later declined to bring charges against the man.

The coins were taken by ICE to a professor of archeology at the Florida Atlantic University, who conducted a cursory assessment of them. The professor later identified them as being from the Muslim world, dating from the 13th to 14th century and possibly associated with the Mongol dynasties in the region.

ICE has returned more than 800 restored ancient coins and other encrusted coins that had not been cleaned and restored. The coins, Mr. Raimondi said, could have belonged to pilgrims who lost their lives while taking part in hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca in modern-day Saudi Arabia. Hajj is one of the five pillars of Sunni Islam.

“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,” said Saudi Ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal. “Their recovery and return to the kingdom is an example of the deep friendship between Saudi Arabia and the United States and the respect the U.S. has for cultural heritage.”

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