Wednesday, March 17, 2010

News: Should Cultural Heritage Be on the Judicial Auction Block?

Should Cultural Heritage Be on the Judicial Auction Block?
By Laina Catherine Wilk Lopez
Volume 75, Number 1
Spring 2010
...Consider the following real life case on which I am currently working. In 1997, several persons, including some Americans, were injured in a suicide bombing in Israel for which Hamas later took credit. In 2003, the U.S. victims of that bombing, in a lawsuit entitled Rubin v. Iran, sued Iran in a U.S. federal court in Washington, D.C. pursuant to a section of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act in effect at the time. That portion of the law, 28 U.S.C. §1605(a)(7), permitted Americans who suffered injury (or death) to sue those nations designated by the United States as “state sponsors of terrorism” for providing “material support” to commit an act of terrorism. At the time of the lawsuit, the nations designated as state sponsors of terrorism were Iran, Cuba, Syria, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Sudan. Today, only Iran, Cuba, Syria and Sudan remain on the list. In the Washington, D.C. case, the Rubin plaintiffs won against Iran a multi-million dollar default judgment, which Iran refused to pay. The plaintiffs, still determined to collect their money, thus registered their judgment in jurisdictions in the United States where the plaintiffs believed Iranian assets were located. They asked the courts in those jurisdictions to permit them to “attach” (a legal term meaning essentially judicial seizure) the various alleged Iranian assets, sell them at judicial auction, and use the proceeds of such sales to satisfy their multi-million dollar judgment.

In one such instance, the plaintiffs registered their judgment in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. The plaintiffs selected that court because there are three collections of ancient Persian artifacts owned by Iran or alleged to be owned by Iran in Chicago. One of the collections is not a true collection but rather a smattering of artifacts at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum of Natural History collectively known as the Herzfeld Collection. The artifacts are so named because, according to the plaintiffs, noted archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld surreptitiously took the items from Iran in the early 20th Century and later unlawfully sold the allegedly stolen items to the University of Chicago and the Field Museum. Iran makes no claim to these artifacts and the university and the Field Museum vigorously defend their lawful ownership of the items. The plaintiffs assert that Iran nonetheless owns the Herzfeld items by operation of an Iranian patrimony law which, according to the plaintiffs, provides that any item unearthed in Iran is owned by Iran. Notably, the Rubin plaintiffs also have sued Harvard University and the Museum of Fine Arts of Boston in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts alleging that those museums also have in their possession several items stolen by Herzfeld and hence are Iran owned. Like the museums in Chicago, however, the Boston museums vigorously defend their lawful ownership of the items.

The other two collections involved in the Chicago litigation, the Persepolis Collection and the Chogha Mish Collection, are housed at the Oriental Institute and are, everyone agrees, owned by Iran. These two collections arrived at the Oriental Institute in the 1930s and 1960s, respectively, following archaeological digs. In the 1930s, the Oriental Institute sent a team of its archaeologists – led by Ernst Herzfeld – to Iran, with the Iranian government’s consent, to excavate the ancient Persian city of Persepolis. Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid Empire, was built by Darius I in approximately 515 B.C. and destroyed by Alexander the Great in approximately 330 B.C. Though largely destroyed by Alexander, the site was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979 due to monumental ruins which were left standing. Following the excavation, Iran agreed to loan to the Institute for study a grouping of rare tablet and tablet fragments found in the fortifications. Some of the tablets are written in an ancient text known as Elamite, a now extinct language understood today by a handful of people. The tablets contain administrative records of daily Achaemenid society, such as the amounts and recipients of food rations...

Go to the chronicle of news on Persepolis.

Go to the chronicle of news on the Persepolis Fortification Archive.

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