University of Chicago Persian antiquities dispute
This article's factual accuracy may be compromised due to out-of-date information. (May 2012)
The University of Chicago Persian antiquities dispute (بحران آثار باستانی ایرانی دانشگاه شیکاگو in Persian) refers to a lawsuit by victims and relatives of victims of Iranian state-sponsored terrorism to seize historic Persian antiquities kept at the University of Chicago, and numerous other Persian antiquities kept in the Field Museum in Chicago, as being Iranian government assets held within the jurisdiction of United States courts. It has been seen by Iranians as a perceived example of the hostility of United States federal court system toward Iranian people and Persian heritage.
In 2003, a group of victims of a September 4, 1997 explosion in Israel (a suicide bombing in Ben Yehuda mall in Jerusalem) won $71 million in a judgment in a U.S. court against Iran  for being a "state sponsor of terrorism". Hamas had claimed responsibility for the attack, so some American visitors filed the federal lawsuit against Iran and Iranian officials, claiming that Hamas was financed by Iran, making the country legally responsible for their suffering. The case is formally called Jenny Rubin, et al. vs. the Islamic Republic of Iran, et al.
After the verdict, the question was how to collect. The former monarchy of Iran had billions of dollars in assets within the United States that were frozen after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. However, in order to secure an end to the Iranian Hostage Crisis, the assets were unfrozen and most if not all of it, was collected by 1982 due to the Iran–Iraq War. Rhode Island attorney David J. Strachman, along with other attorneys, representing the plaintiffs, found that the late Shah had purchased a home in Lubbock, Texas for his son, which was sold for $400,000;. After that, they attempted to go after assets of Iranians who had previously worked for the former monarchy, but the U.S. courts would overturn all their attempts to seize their assets, as they were not found to be liable for the damages. They then went after Iranian-owned objects held by U.S. museums in Illinois, Massachusetts and Michigan. The Oriental Institute and its holdings from Persepolis became a primary target. Strachman said collectors are interested in the antiquities, potentially for tens of millions of dollars.
The university had argued sovereign immunity, i.e., under federal law, "certain property owned by foreign governments is protected from court judgments." The university was arguing that on Iran's behalf, saying that "the Iranians were gun-shy because of bad experiences with the American legal system." The victims characterized the university and other institutions as defending Iran.
In June 2006, U.S. District Court Judge Blanche M. Manning ruled that only Iran, which has not acknowledged the suit, can claim its own rights. Manning said that the university's "brazen accusation that the courts of the United States are hostile to Iran and that, as a result, Iran should be excused from bothering to assert its rights, is wholly unsupported."
The university however, in light of the new ruling, has argued that seizing the tablets would frighten foreign museums away from loans to U.S. institutions, and that U.S.-owned objects overseas might also be seized.
Appeals courts later reversed Manning's decision, however, ruling in favor of the Oriental Institute in 2011 and again in 2014. OI director Gil Stein explained that the new ruling was based on the idea that the tablets were to be considered noncommercial and thus not subject to seizure.
Background on University of Chicago's artifacts
The Achaemenid (or Persepolis) clay tablets were loaned to the University of Chicago in 1937. They were discovered by archaeologists in 1933 and are legally the property of the National Museum of Iran and the Iran's Cultural Heritage Organization. The artifacts came with the understanding that they would be returned to Iran. The tablets, from Persepolis, the capital of the Persian Empire, date to about 500 B.C.
The tablets give a view of daily life, with things like daily rations of barley that were given to workers in nearby regions of the empire. These tablets were sent to the capital to keep track of how they were paying workers. Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, said that details largely concern food for people on diplomatic or military missions. Each tablet is about half the size of a deck of playing cards and has characters of a dialect of Elamite, an extinct language understood by perhaps a dozen scholars in the world.
Stein called it "the first chance to hear the Persians speaking of their own empire." Charles Jones, Research Associate and Librarian at the Oriental Institute and tablet expert compared them to "credit card receipts." Most of our current knowledge about the ancient Persian empire comes from the accounts of others, most famously the Greek storyteller Herodotus. Stein added, "It's valuable because it's a group of tablets, thousands of them from the same archive. It's like the same filing cabinet. They're very, very valuable scientifically."
The university's Oriental Institute had been returning them to Iran in small batches. The Institute had already returned 37,000 tablets and fragments to Iran and were preparing another shipment when Strachman intervened.
Field Museum case
Larger international impact
According to the UNESCO "Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property", transfer of ownership of any and all Persian antiques is illegal. On July 10, 2006, UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura said the U.S. court decision was "illegal."
US government position
The executive branch of the US government, in particular the US State Department have been supportive of the Iranian government's position in this case, arguing like the University of Chicago that the artifacts are protected under the sovereign immunity doctrine.
As in several other cases involving U.S. citizens and foreign nations, the United States Department of Justice argued that national interest is better served if such disputes are resolved through diplomatic negotiations rather than legal suit. Poking fun at the United States government, Manning wrote that "[t]he government relegates the [key] argument to a footnote."
Iran has strongly condemned a U.S. court ruling authorizing the seizure of ancient clay tablets. In late June 2006, Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran's Minister of Foreign Affairs, warned that "if the US denies Iran's right to its properties and assets to satisfy judgments by some of its court, Tehran will reciprocate the action." Other officials expressed outrage, too, saying they will appeal to the International Court of Justice, UNESCO, and other international bodies.
Iranian Foreign Minister said "one of Americans' usual propaganda ploys is raising claims at the US courts based on the country's civil laws, which is contrary to the international law." He said that Iran had adopted a similar law in 1999. This has resulted in complaints against the United States for such things as its role in Operation Ajax and the Iran–Iraq War. So far, three billion dollars in penalties have been issued against the US government. Mottaki says that Iran would follow up the case with UNESCO.
In September 2006 former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami met with Oriental Institute director Gil Stein and U. of C. provost Richard Saller to discuss the future of the tablets. Iran has characterized the situation as a U.S.-engineered heist. Khatami argued that the tablets "do not belong to governments but to the Iranian nation and the world".
Iranian embassies around the world condemned the ruling, which they say violates international norms and regulations. The Iranian embassy in Thailand strongly criticized a US federal court order to auction more than 30,000 clay tablets obtained during excavations in the Persepolis in 1935 and placed in the University of Chicago's museum on loan. The embassy's statement reads: "The tablets were transferred to the US and delivered to the institute as part of the cultural heritage of the Iranian people."
About 3,000 Iranians living outside the country have signed a petition calling on the U.S. Supreme Court to step in to reverse the ruling. They argue that the Iranian people should not be punished for "whatever the Islamic regime of Iran is doing in the international arena."
Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago said, "The Iranians are understandably furious about this. You'd have to imagine how we would feel if we loaned the Liberty Bell to Russia and a Russian court put it up for auction." Farah Pahlavi, former empress of Iran who is not tied to the current government of Iran, has also voiced her strong objection to Strachman's efforts to seize the tablets.
In early July 2006, following the decision, Iran sent Washington lawyer Thomas Corcoran to Chicago after years of refusing to participate in either the original terrorism case or the Chicago artifacts litigation, to assert Iran's immunities. Patty Gerstenblith, a cultural property law specialist at DePaul University, said that Corcoran's appearance changes matters greatly, as the crux of the judge's ruling was that Iran had to assert sovereign immunity itself. "It changes things pretty dramatically. If foreign sovereign immunity can be asserted, the case should be more or less resolved," she said.
Rulings overturned by Court of Appeals (29 March 2011)
- Reversal by Appeals Court, 29 March 2011
- Amicus brief (in support of reversal) filed by U.S. State Department
- Herrmann, Andrew (2006-06-27). "Victims claim win in fight for U. of C. tablets". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2006-07-27.
- "Iranian Antiquities May Be Seized in Suit". 2006-06-28. Retrieved 2006-07-27.
- Grossman, Ron (2006-06-28). "Persian treasure trove on the line at U. of C". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2006-07-27. (requires registration)
- Slevin, Peter (2006-07-18). "Iran, U.S. Allied in Protecting Artifacts". Washington Post. p. A03. Retrieved 2006-08-29.
- "University of Chicago returns ancient Persian tablets loaned by Iran". 2004-04-29. Retrieved 2006-07-27.
- "Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property". UNESCO. 1970-11-17. Archived from the original on 2006-07-17. Retrieved 2006-07-27.
- Esfandiari, Golnaz (2006-07-12). "Iran: Tehran, U.S. Academics Challenge Seizure Of Persian Tablets". RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. Retrieved 2007-02-28.
- Herrmann, Andrew (2006-09-06). "Iranian official sees disputed relics". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2007-02-28.
- "Iranian embassy in Thailand blasts US federal court's ruling on Iran's cultural artifacts". Islamic Republic News Agency. 2006-07-06. Archived from the original on July 8, 2006. Retrieved 2007-02-28.
- Letter of Farah Pahlavi to Koichiro Matsuura, Director General of UNESCO, July 4, 2006. Link:  Archived September 28, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
- Persian Artifacts, Victims of Political Crisis
- Iran, US In New Cultural Battle
- Persepolis Fortification Archive Project This site provides information on the Persepolis Fortification Archive project based at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
- Fate of Persian Tablets Still Undetermined (Jan 2007)