Monday, April 26, 2010

Persian Antiquities Crisis


In 2003, a U.S. Federal Judge awarded 423 million dollars in a lawsuit against the nation of Iran by the victims of a Hamas bombing in Jerusalem. The plaintiffs alleged that Iran was complicit in the attack due to the country's sponsorship of Hamas. Since Iran did not respond to the suit, a default judgment was given in favor of the plaintiffs.

The major issue with this case has been how to collect the money. Since there are no official relations with Iran, there are no assets in the US that can be seized to pay the damages. Almost. The Persepolis Fortification Archive, a collection that has been on loan to the University of Chicago since 1937, has found its way to the center of this controversy as Iranian property in this country. The plaintiffs of this case have, over the last few years, made a push for the sale of these items to private hands, in order to pay their damages award.

This collection, composed primarily of tablets from the Achaemenid Empire of ancient Iran. The tablets have proved invaluable at piecing together daily life during those times. The Iranian government has openly condemned the US attempt to confiscate the tablets. According to the UNESCO has spoken out as well, calling the US court's decision illegal. The US State Department and Justice Department are also taking the side of the University of Chicago and the nation of Iran, pointing out that these items are protected under sovereign immunity doctrines. This could also have seriously detrimental effects on future cultural exchanges. Other nations would see little incentive to allow us the educational opportunity of borrowing their property after seeing how the US treats these items while in their care.

Gil Stein, Director of Chicago's Oriental Institute, made a stark comparison, saying that the United States would be appalled if the Russian Government sold the US Constitution or the Liberty Bell to settle a suit by some of their citizens against them.

MSNBC wrote:

"Studying an ancient society
Studying just one tablet was like trying to understand a society with a single grocery receipt. Scholars had to figure out how they were connected.

They also had to translate them. While some pieces were as large as place mats, others were nuggets. Many were written in Elamite, a complicated language dating back to 2300 B.C. or earlier. (Stolper is among a small group of people in the world who understands it.)

The tablets revealed how rank shaped food rations, the movement of animals and the distant travels of people. It was a top-to-bottom look at a society.

"It wasn't just a bunch of guys in bed sheets running around saying thee and thou," Stolper says. "These guys were highly civilized people who could operate extremely complicated bureaucracies because, after all, they had conquered an entire continent and what's more important is ... they held on to it."

Over the decades, tens of thousands of tablets were returned to Iran after scholars finished studying and cataloguing them.

When the Oriental Institute announced it was delivering more to Iran in 2004, Strachman heard about it.

He had been able to collect just a small part of the judgment from Iranian bank accounts and a house in Texas once owned by the shah of Iran.

This, he realized, could be an opportunity.

Chilling effect on safeguards
The prospect of losing the tablets has prompted Stolper to speed up his work.

Aided by experts from the United States and Europe, Stolper is rushing to put online this winter the first installments of a digital photo archive of the collection.

No one knows how much the tablets would fetch on the open market. Some academics believe it would be a mere fraction of the enormous judgments; others think no institution would even bid on them considering the legal tug-of-war.

Strachman, however, maintains he has been contacted by interested museums who want to expand their collections and says he has no intention of trying to sell them commercially.

He has sued the Field Museum in Chicago, too, as well as the Harvard museums and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for other Persian artifacts. In those cases, lawyers deny the items belong to the government of Iran.

As this case works its way through the courts, Stein, head of the Oriental Institute, worries about broader implications.

"It would have a deadly, chilling effect on any kinds of cultural exchanges in the future," he says."






http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29319075/

It remains to be seen whether or not the tablets will be confiscated from the University and put up for auction. Let us all hope that these priceless pieces remain where they are and eventually are returned to their rightful owners in Iran.

Tomorrow, Matthew Stolper will give a lecture about this ongoing issue at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia entitled, "Persian Antiquities in Crisis."

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