Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Archaeological and Cultural News of Iran and the Iranian World
of Chicago and Museums Win Key Ruling in Legal Battle Over Iranian
By David Glenn
(CAIS) -- Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History and the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute won a victory on Tuesday in their efforts to maintain possession of thousands of ancient Iranian artifacts. In a ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed a lower court's order that might have handed the artifacts over to several American victims of a 1997 terrorist bombing in Jerusalem.
Those victims won a $90-million judgment in 2003 against the government of Iran, which is
claimed to have allegedly financed and trained the Arab terrorists who carried out the Jerusalem bombing. But the victims and their families have struggled to collect any of that judgment from Iran, and their lawyers have sought instead to seize purported Iranian assets in the United States, including antiquities held in American museums. Those legal efforts have been condemned by some scholars as a dangerous politicization of the world's archaeological heritage.
In Tuesday's ruling, a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit ruled that the lower court had misinterpreted the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, which generally protects the property of foreign governments in the United States. The plaintiffs have asserted that the antiquities in Chicago are exempt from that immunity because of a provision in the 1976 law that excludes property "used for a commercial activity."
The lower court had ruled that the plaintiff's argument on that point must win by default because Iran had not come forward to assert its immunity under the 1976 law. But the Seventh Circuit, like other appellate courts in similar recent cases, ruled that the 1976 law requires courts to decide for themselves which foreign immunities apply to each case, whether or not a foreign government has explicitly demanded those immunities. (Complicating the case, Iran did eventually come forward to assert its immunity.)
The case will now return to the lower court for further argument. Among the remaining questions is whether the antiquities might be seized under the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act of 2002.
Derek Fincham, a professor at the South Texas College of Law who maintains the Illicit Cultural Property blog, said in an e-mail message to The Chronicle that Tuesday's decision was a significant victory for the museums.
The antiquities, he noted, "are temporary loans which allow researchers to study these objects even while foreign relations with Iran have been rocky. There is a certain expectation that the advancement of our understanding of these ancient cultures should proceed even though these nations or individuals may have serious disagreements. I imagine museums and universities are breathing a sigh of relief that they will likely not be stuck in the middle of a foreign nation and a domestic plaintiff in the near future."
Alicia M. Hilton, a lawyer and consultant who wrote a law-review article about the case in 2008, said in an interview that she expected the case to wind on for several years.
"It's going to be a long road," she said. "I think it must be extremely frustrating both for the plaintiffs and for the museums. Museums are concerned about their ability to get collections on loan from foreign governments. At the same time, I feel a lot of sympathy for these plaintiffs. I'm sure they would rather have gone after other kinds of Iranian property. This wouldn't have come up if Iran had dealt with the case in a different manner."
It would be tragic, Ms. Hilton said, if the Chicago institutions' collections were broken up because of the case.
Fortification Tablets, when you get down to it, are pieces of dry earth and clay," she said. "They won't mean nearly as much if they're split up at auction. The value is what they tell us about an
Fortification tablets, are the administrative records in Elamite inscribed on
clay tablets. Parts of two archives of such tablets were discovered in
Persepolis in 1933-34 and 1936-38 by the archaeological expedition of the
Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. They belonged to administrative
records kept by agencies of the Achaemenid dynastic government during the
reigns of Darius the Great, Xerxes and Artaxerxes I.
Stein, director of the Oriental Institute, back in 2007 in a written statement
commented on the importance of these historical document for Iran: "The
Persepolis texts…resonate for Iranians at a very profound level. These are
items of cultural heritage as important as the crown jewels of England, or the
original document of the Magna Carta, or the Western Wall in Jerusalem, or the
Parthenon in Athens.
Empires, and Modern Litigation; A Lawsuit Jeopardise the Persepolis
Fortification Archive at the Oriental Institute
Fortification Archive Project Annual Report 2009-2010
news bulletin published by The Chronicles of Higher Education, rectified
and edited by CAIS [*]
is the Light on the Path to Future"
British Institute of Persian Studies