Terror attack victims will not be allowed to seize ancient Persian artifacts, will need to seek other remedy

By Deana Carpenter | Aug 4, 2016

CHICAGO — In a rare case, a museum collection will not be used to satisfy a judgment against another nation - in this case, the country of Iran, which has been accused of having sponsored a 1997 terrorist attack in Jerusalem in which eight Americans were injured.

On July 19, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Chicago's Field Museum and the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute are not required to return ancient Persian artifacts over to the victims of the attack.

The artifacts, if turned over, would have helped to satisfy a judgment of $71.5 million against Iran.

The appeals court upheld a lower court's ruling that the survivors of the 1997 terrorist attack, which has been blamed partly on Iran, cannot seize the Persian antiquities which include a large Persepolis Fortification tablet with cuneiform text from more than 2,000 years ago.

The Americans who had sued Iran were injured in the September 1997 Hamas suicide bombing in which bombers, affiliated with the Palestinian group Hamas, detonated suicide bombs in a pedestrian mall in Jerusalem.

“This is a rare case,” said Derek Fincham, Associate Professor of Law at the Houston College of Law.

He said using museum or university collections to satisfy judgments has rarely been successful.

“The 7th Circuit in this case had already denied the plaintiff’s efforts to secure the judgments," he said. "In other words, they won on the merits because Iran did not contest the case."

The ruling was formally a denial of an en banc rehearing, or a hearing before all the judges of the appeals court, by a larger number of the 7th Circuit judges, not just the three judge panel that decided the earlier case.

“En banc appeals are rarely successful, because three judges have already decided the case and rarely will a case merit the full complement of appeals court judges in any circuit,” Fincham said.

Two of the four collections of artifacts sought by the victims are not owned by Iran, the court stated. The country does own a third collection, but in 1970 the Oriental Institute returned most of those artifacts under the advice of the U.S. State Department.

A fourth collection, which includes approximately 30,000 clay tablets and segments, was loaned to the Oriental Institute for research from Iran in the 1930s.

The court wrote that the collection is owned by Iran and is in the possession of the University of Chicago and are immune from attachment and execution as property of a foreign state under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

“Plaintiffs will always be concerned with how they can get paid when they win, but that is exceedingly hard when as in this case, Iran did not even participate in the litigation as a defendant,” Fincham said.

He said it is a unique situation where the defendant must not really have any commercial relationship with the United States for it to work.

“I think the case was rightly decided. A ruling otherwise would have had devastating consequences for the loan of artwork and study collections at museums and universities,” Fincham said.

Fincham said the tablets are an important research collection, but doesn’t suspect that any of the tablets are display quality.

“Rather, they tell us valuable information about Persepolis, the ancient city, and the Persian culture,” Fincham said.

The market value of the tablets is unsure, but there are thousands of fragments.

“Had they been sold, they would have probably gone to private collectors who may not have been able to care for them, study them or even preserve them as a set so they can be studied,” Fincham said.

Fincham said the court’s decision was a good result for the artifacts in question.

“The poor victims of the attacks, though, will have to seek a remedy some other way,” he said.

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