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Appeal against Iranian artefacts handover by Chicago museums successful

The US Court of Appeals has overturned the verdict by lower courts in a long running case, that ordered two Chicago museums to hand over Iranian artefacts [1] as compensation for American victims of a 1997 Hamas bombing. I still struggle to understand the logic that this entire case is based on – as the compensation seems entirely disconnected from the actual events – and if such a case is successful might lead the way for ever more spurious artefact seizures, making museums more reluctant to lend to US museums.

CAIS [2]

University of Chicago and Museums Win Key Ruling in Legal Battle Over Iranian Antiquities
Wednesday, 30 March 2011 00:30
By David Glenn

LONDON, (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. “The Persepolis 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 ancient civilization.”

Persepolis 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.

Gil 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.