Supreme Court foils seizure of Persian artifacts
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Some thirty thousand clay tablets excavated from the ruins of Persepolis recently escaped confiscation. Several survivors of a series of 1997 bombings in Jerusalem—both American citizens and relatives of citizens—filed a suit against the Islamic Republic of Iran, whom the survivors held partially culpable for the assault. Since the sovereign state of Iran did not appear in court, the plaintiffs won by default, with the District Court of Columbia awarding them $71.5 million. Iran ignored this payment in much the same way it ignored the court case. The survivors attempted legal action to seize four collections of antiquities from ancient Persia.
Three of these collections were no longer at stake by the time of the current ruling. Previous courts had judged that two of them did not belong to the Iranian government and the Chogha Mish collection no longer resides within the United States' continental jurisdiction. On Feb. 21, 2018, the Supreme Court, without dissenting voice, rejected the survivors' claim. Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the case.
Traditionally, the property of foreign states has been exempt from seizure but a 1976 law makes certain exceptions for states deemed to sponsor terrorism. The plaintiffs suggested that the Persepolis artifacts numbered among these exceptions. In her writing of the Court's opinion, Justice Sotomayor disagreed saying that the “petitioners’ counter arguments are unpersuasive.”
The Persepolis Collection has been on loan to the University of Chicago since 1937, when Iran was still commonly known as Persia. At present, Mohammad Reza Kargar, an Iranian cultural director expects the artifacts will soon be returned to his country: “Restitution of the tablets has been a controversial issue, but the saga is nearing its end now.” In recent years, countries as far as Belgium and Italy have returned numerous items.
The presidential administration of the United States also took an interest in the case, at the request of the Supreme Court. According to its amicus curiae brief “Litigation against foreign states in U.S. courts can have significant foreign affairs implications for the United States, and can affect the reciprocal treatment of the United States in the courts of other nations.” In other words, widespread punitive looting of cultural heritage would be in no country's best interest. The administration's brief made it clear that, despite this reservation, it unconditionally condemned all forms of terrorism.