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.
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."