A recovered de Kooning reveals more questions

“Woman-Ochre” by Willem de Kooning

In 1985 this work of art by Willem de Kooning was stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of art. The thieves entered the museum when it opened, the day after Thanksgiving. One of the thieves, a woman, distracted the museum security guard, while a man went upstairs and cut the canvas from the frame. The work has now been returned, and the story of the theft and recovery is pretty remarkable. The reporting indicates that the work very likely was stolen as a prize for a couple’s private collection, hidden in plain sight behind their bedroom door.

The painting was recently discovered in the estate of Rita Alter after her death. Rita and her husband Jerry may have been the thieves. The Arizona Republic reports:

Jerry and Rita Alter spent Thanksgiving Day 1985 with family in Tucson.

A newly discovered photo from the gathering shows them smiling side by side at the dinner table, plates of pumpkin pie in front of them.

Jerry was a retired music teacher and Rita a speech pathologist; a couple of New Yorkers in their 50s who had moved to rural New Mexico.

A day after the photo was taken, a valuable painting by the artist Willem de Kooning was taken from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson. Officials believed the thieves — a man and a woman — distracted a guard, cut the painting from the frame, rolled it up and carried it out of the museum under a coat.

The thieves and the painting disappeared without a trace.

Composite sketches, in hindsight, resemble the faces in the Thanksgiving photo, down to their position side by side.

Here’s a terrific local news documentary on the theft, which hints that there may have been other thefts:

Antonia Farzan, A small-town couple left behind a stolen painting worth over $100 million — and a big mystery, Washington Post (Aug. 3, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/08/03/a-small-town-couple-left-behind-a-stolen-painting-worth-over-100-million-and-a-big-mystery/.
William K. Rashbaum, A de Kooning, a Theft and an Enduring Mystery, The New York Times, Dec. 905, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/09/nyregion/a-de-kooning-a-theft-and-an-enduring-mystery.html.
Anne Ryman, Who stole the $100M masterpiece? Clues emerge in year since recovery of Willem de Kooning painting, Arizona Republic (Aug. 1, 2018), https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-best-reads/2018/08/01/art-heist-woman-ochre-clues-emerge-willem-de-kooning-painting-recovered/789652002/.
Discovering de Kooning: A WFAA documentary (WFAA dir.), https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=189&v=fwvqHeb32lY.

Profile of Tsirogiannis by Vernon Silver

This polaroid image of a Bell Krater from teh Medici archive was submitted by Tsirogiannis to Manhattan prosecutors, who seized the krater from the Met in 2017.

If you haven’t yet read the profile of Christos Tsirogiannis by Vernon Silver, you should. Silver wrote a terrific account of the Euphronios Krater called The Lost Chalice, so this extended profile into how Tsirogiannis uses his database, and how auction houses and prosecutors use this information is fascinating. I really recommend you give it a read, but here is a taste:

When he finished clicking through the last of Christie’s 109 lots, Tsirogiannis was ready to dive into his archive. It’s meticulously organized so he can fetch images from one of three major dealers, including Medici, and from galleries and smaller dealers whose photos help him reconstruct who owned what and when. Within each of these libraries, he has folders for about 10 object types, amphorae in one, kylix drinking cups in another. Those in turn are categorized by shape and color. Figurines are sorted by animal type—horses are with horses, boars with boars.

To vet the catalog, he’d made a list of about 15 suspect lots. Then, one at a time, he looked for matches. The laptop screen was filled 14 across with thumbnails from the Medici folder, and Tsirogiannis’s eyes darted left to right as he scrolled through in an intricate game of Memory, where players turn over two cards at a time looking for a pair.

He’d barely begun when he needed to run to a lunch meeting. He would continue the search that evening; we could meet the next day, he said. As we prepared to leave, he deleted the downloaded portion of the archive. Tsirogiannis’s curiosity proved overwhelming. As soon as I left, he logged back in. “These are things that always have priority for me,” he told me later. What he found made him late for his appointment. By midnight, he’d alerted law enforcement on two continents.

The Ancient-Art Vigilante Who Holds the Global Market Hostage, Bloomberg.com, Jun. 26, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2018-06-26/if-you-steal-it-the-art-vigilante-will-find-you.
Laura Chesters, Auction house Sotheby’s takes on Greece in landmark antiquities court case, Antiquities Trade Gazette (Jun. 6, 2018), https://www.antiquestradegazette.com/news/2018/auction-house-sotheby-s-takes-on-greece-in-landmark-antiquities-court-case/.
Tom Mashberg, Ancient Vase Seized From Met Museum on Suspicion It Was Looted, The New York Times, Jul. 17, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/31/arts/design/ancient-vase-seized-from-met-museum-on-suspicion-it-was-looted.html.

 

BLM Accidentally Reveals Location of 900 Heritage Sites

Cedar Mesa in Utah”That’s a big screwup”

So says Paul Reed, an archaeologist with Archaeology Southwest in a story by Jennifer Oldham for Reveal and Salon, which describes the massive error by Bureau of Land Management officials who posted a 77-page report which included the locations heritage sites in Utah. All in all 900 sites were described, including cliff dwellings, religious sites, rock art, and other archaeological sites.

The Bureau of Land Management posted a 77-page report online that included unique identifiers for priceless artifacts as it prepared to auction the most archaeologically rich lands ever offered for industrial use. The report exposed ruins spanning 13,000 years of Native American history to vandalism and looting, and experts say the BLM violated federal regulations that prohibit publicly sharing information about antiquities.

The document appeared on a BLM web page before the March oil and gas lease of 51,482 acres in a remote desert region of southeastern Utah. The BLM removed it and then reposted it with entire pages of detailed site descriptions blacked out. The report appeared online the last weekend in February and remained there for at least a few days – long enough for a state agency in Utah to download it and realize it violated the state’s privacy restrictions.

Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa was quoted in the story expressing his surprise at the report, which “went to a level . . . that was very unusual in terms of listing site numbers and descriptions by parcel that I haven’t seen before.” So how did this information get published? Oldham’s story notes that the BLM field offices are understaffed, and have been instructed by the Trump administration to undo the “regulatory burdens” impacting the energy industry. The report was only online for a few days, but likely made it easier for determined looters to target and clandestinely remove material from a staggering number of archaeological sites.

Jennifer Oldham, Oops! Federal officials divulge secret info about Native American artifacts, Salon (Jul. 15, 2018), https://www.salon.com/2018/07/15/oops-federal-officials-divulge-secret-info-about-native-american-artifacts_partner/.

Operation Demetra and familiar names

The Aidone goddess, likely depicting the Earth goddess Demeter at the Archaeological Museum in Aidone.

Police in Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy have announced arrests in a four year investigation named Operation Demetra. The name for the investigation has a bit of history, which it may be worth remembering. Demeter, the ancient Greek Earth goddess was likely depicted in the notorious Getty goddess. The Getty mistakenly referred to her as Aphrodite.

As many of you likely know, the story of this and other illicit acquisitions by the Getty, and the tax fraud perpetrated to pay for much of this is described in the terrific book, Chasing Aphrodite. In a nutshell: The statue was first smuggled from Morgantina. Looters broke her into pieces, and it was acquired by the Getty in 1988 for $18 million. While at the Getty, it was described as the finest classical piece of sculpture in North America, perhaps even outside of the Mediterranean and Europe.  She was brazenly referred to for a while as the Getty Goddess, before ultimately being returned to the small archaeological museum at Aidone after evidence of the statue’s theft and connection to organized crime groups in Sicily helped build a case for return. Aidone and this part of Sicily are covered in wheat fields, the choice of using Demeter for a codename, goddess of the Earth and the wheat harvest was certainly intentional.

These objects were likely looted from archaeological sites in Sicily, and the investigation recovered an astounding 25,000 objects including coins, statues, and pottery fragments.

One of the individuals arrested was Thomas William Veres in London, a man of Hungarian origin antiques dealer who has long been involved in trafficking illicit material from Sicily to other parts of Europe and abroad. Police told reporters that:

The London art merchant Thomas William Veres commanded a transnational criminal holding that was able to traffic considerable quantities of Sicilian archaeological artifacts . . .

He was prominently featured in a case of another Sicilian antiquity, the Gold Phiale case. In 1991 Veres helped transport an ancient Greek Phiale (plate) to Switzerland where it was sold to Michael Steinhardt for $1.2 million. Veres was referred to by Federal prosecutors as a Swiss art dealer. Veres and another art dealer, Robert Haber, revealed how little faith they had in the licitness of the gold plate when in the purchase agreement with Steinhardt thy agreed that:

If the object is confiscated or impounded by customs agents or a claim is made by any country or governmental agency whatsoever, full compensation will be made immediately to the purchaser.

Steinhardt’s customs agent failed to accurately disclose the purchase price and the location of the plate, which ended up setting an important precedent for customs forfeitures and the use of civil forfeiture by Federal prosecutors in the United States for securing the return of illicit material.

It likely came as no surprise then to many who follow the antiquities trade that the name William Veres appeared in the news reports of arrests stemming from Operation Demetra. That investigation reveals a massive looting, smuggling, and counterfeit operation involving the movement of authentic and inauthentic material across borders, where histories were fabricated, and sales routinely took place.

John Phillips & Justin Huggler, Italian Police Smash £30m International Ancient Artefact Smuggling Ring, The Telegraph, Jul. 4, 2018, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/07/04/italian-police-smash-40m-international-ancient-artefact-smuggling/.

Italian Court Again Orders Seizure of the Victorious Youth

Bronze Statue of a Victorious youth, at the Getty Villa in 2007

“sequestrare l’Atleta di Lisippo ovunque si trovi”

Translation: Seize the Athlete of Lysippos, wherever it is found.

A court in Pesaro on June 8 has for the third time ordered the seizure of the Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth, currently in the possession of the Getty Foundation. The Getty Foundation purchased the Bronze in 1977 for approximately $4 million dollars. The Getty has maintained that the Bronze was found in international waters in the Adriatic Sea. Italy though has long sought the return of the Bronze on the grounds that the fishermen who pulled the Bronze up in their nets were required under Italian law to report the discovery, that the Bronze became subject to Italian heritage law when it was brought ashore, and that it was abused and smuggled before ultimately being acquired by the Getty.

The difficulty of course will be can an Italian court successfully seek the assistance of an American court to enforce this forfeiture order. I have argued that yes, it could. Italy via its Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with the United States could trigger a transnational forfeiture that if successful would be a powerful tool on the part of nations of origin.

The Getty though may decide to appeal this decision, and I’ll defer to Italian attorneys the question of whether those appeals have merit. To be sure though, Italian officials are continuing to aggressively use their own courts to seek the return of this rare Bronze.

Fincham, Derek, Transnational Forfeiture of the Getty Bronze (August 22, 2013). Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal, Vol. 32, 2014. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2238204 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2238204

ANSA, Lysippus must be seized wherever it is, http://www.ansa.it/english/news/lifestyle/arts/2018/06/08/lysippus-must-be-seized-wherever-it-is-4_6ed58f7c-9127-44f8-8fa4-f4e599a91b8a.html, 8 June 2018.

Il giudice dà torto al Getty Museum: sequestrare l’Atleta di Lisippo ovunque si trovi, Il Messaggero, https://www.ilmessaggero.it/primopiano/cronaca/ordinanza_sequestro_lisippo_atleta_getty_museum_malibu_tribunale-3785377.html, 8 June 2018.

 

Steinhardt, pretrial discovery, and 1000 antiquities

Image result for Guennol Stargazer
The Guennol Stargazer, an anatolian marble female idol of Kiliya type. Chalcolithic period, c. 3000-2200 BC. 9 in (22.9 cm) high.

Michael Steinhardt has been involved in over 1,000 antiquities transactions, and he is not eager to discuss the details of any of them. That’s my key takeaway from a recent Magistrate Judge’s order which may throw a good deal of daylight on many of those 1,000 transactions through pre-trial discovery. The suit involves the Republic of Turkey, represented by Herrick, Feinstein LLP, in the ongoing lawsuit between the Republic of Turkey, Christies, and Steinhardt involving the Guennol Stargazer. That could have big implications for future potential repatriation suits involving material which passed through Steinhardt and dealers he was associated with. If he has been involved in 1,000 antiquities transactions, we could be looking at a large amount of new information coming to light. It may also lead to more actions by the Manhattan District Attorney‘s office like the one earlier this year.

First, a few observations about Mr. Steinhardt. He is a billionaire. He was one of the first hedge fund managers. He has generously funded many cultural exchanges, including the Jewish Birthright movement which pays for Jews to return to Israel. He also has a gallery named after him at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and serves on Christie’s advisory board. He has also been subject to many repatriation and forfeiture lawsuits, two notable ones including an ancient Greek gold Phiale from Sicily, and an Etruscan tomb fragment. 

His dispute with Turkey involves a small sculpture which dates to the third millennium BCE, and was sold for a reported $14.5 million at Christie’s Auction House in New York on April 28, 2017. Soon after the Republic of Turkey brought suit against the auction house and the consignor, Michael Steinhardt.

At the time the ministry of Culture of Turkey published a full-page letter in the New York Times demanding repatriation of objects which have been illegally removed from that country.

Image result for turkey full page new york times letter
An Open Letter from the Turkish Ministry of Culture which ran in the New York Times in 2017, featuring the Guennol Stargazer.

Turkey brought suit in advance of the contemplated sale on April 27, 2017. Turkey sought to block any potential sale, and was denied that request. However District Judge Nathan did agree to an accession by Christie’s which would delay for 60 days the receipt of any funds by the winning bidder, and to retain possession of the object. Soon after Turkey amended its complaint on May 26, 2017 re-asserting claims that the Figure had been removed from Turkey at some point prior to 1966 in violation of Turkey’s National Patrimony Law. In the complaint, the lead attorney Lawrence Kaye argued that Turkey has had since as far back as 1906 national ownership of all undiscovered antiquities in Turkey. The only known published provenance for the Figure from Christies was the following:

Alastair Bradley and Edith Martin, New York, acquired 1966 or prior; thence by descent. with the Merrin Gallery, New York, acquired from the above, 1993. Acquired by the current owner from the above, 16 August 1993.

That current owner was Michael Steinhardt. Which brings us to the recent ruling by Magistrate Judge Aaron. The parties at this point, Christie’s and Steinhardt on one side; and Turkey on the other, are presently engaged in the pretrial discovery process. This involves Turkey asking for as much information as possible about how Steinhardt acquired his antiquities. What was his diligence before every acquisition? What if any concerns were raised? Steinhardt is justifiably reticent to hand over all of that information. As Magistrate Judge Aaron summarizes in his decision, Turkey “argues that Steinhardt’s ‘habits and practices’ with respect to antiquities transactions even after his 1993 acquisition of the Idol are relevant.” But the ultimate discovery was limited to “Steinhardt’s antiquities transactions up to and including December 31, 2006”, which was limited in two important ways. First, any transactions by Steinhardt in Anatolian antiquities; and also any antiquities transactions by Steinhardt which involved John J. Klejman. Klejman was according to Thomas Hoving, one of his favorite “dealer-smugglers“. Klejman had also handled the series of objects known as the Lydian Hoard, which was sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1966, and which was returned to Turkey in 1993.

The pre-trial discovery process in America can be a long carefully argued process with each party arguing about how much or little information should be conveyed to the other parties in a lawsuit. Though Mr. Steinhardt has demonstrated a willingness to aggressively litigate to defend his possession or in this case sale proceeds of antiquities, he has not always been successful. At the very least this recent ruling highlights just how much information may be discoverable, how many transactions he was engaged in, and raises an important point moving forward. If this material is not transmitted back to nations of origin, or if a nation of origin cannot be ascertained, what Museum would want this collection of objects with incomplete histories? Wouldn’t we have a much more interesting story to tell about the Guennol Stargazer if we know which tomb it came from? David Gill has speculated that the Guennol Stargazer may have been found with a similar Stargazer which has been acquired by Shelby White.

Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., No. 1:17-cv-03086 (AJN) (SDA), 2018 BL 170526 (S.D.N.Y. May 14, 2018), available at https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=14654938921966793717&hl=en&lr=lang_en&as_sdt=6,44&as_vis=1&oi=scholaralrt
  1. Suzan Mazur, Klejman or Hecht?–Who Sold the Guennol Stargazer to Tennis’s Alastair Martin?, Huffington Post (Sept. 19, 2017), https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/klejman-or-hecht-who-sold-the-guennol-stargazer-to_us_59c03f89e4b082fd4205b935.
  2. Smuggled Anatolian idol sold in US, Hürriyet Daily News, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/smuggled-anatolian-idol-sold-in-us–112576.
  3. Sam Hardy, The antiquity of the Guennol Stargazer – legal, looted, fake?, conflict antiquities (Mar. 0, 2018), https://conflictantiquities.wordpress.com/2018/03/09/turkey-guennol-stargazer-legal-looted-fake/.

 

Two Moral Rights Suits over Public Murals

The now-destroyed Community Faces mural in Pittsburgh depicting artists, their relatives, and people from the community. Multiple artists created the work.

Artists have brought suit in Pittsburgh and Memphis over the destruction of public murals. Both suits involve the use of blighted buildings and spaces which have come under development. As these areas character changes, or as attitudes about the public art shift, City officials and landowners have removed, distorted, or even destroyed public murals.

In Memphis, as part of a 135 mural installation organized by Paint Memphis, seven murals drew the attention of Memphis City officials, and were painted over near the end of January in 2018 as part of a “miscommunication”.

Memphis City Council officials say they have received complaints about some of the murals, and want to allow residents to vet the murals before they are erected in public spaces.

A similar dispute involving mural artist Kyle Holbrook has taken place in Pittsburgh. Holbrook alleges that property owners, the city of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, and others have destroyed eight of his murals on walls and buildings.

Both suits use the federal moral rights law, the Visual Artists Rights Act as a basis for remedying destruction of murals and even attempting to enjoin further destruction.

Ryan Poe, Artists sue Memphis for failed attempt to scrub “satanic” murals, Commercial Appeal, April 26, 2018, https://www.commercialappeal.com/story/news/government/city/2018/04/26/artists-sue-memphis-failed-attempt-scrub-satanic-murals/555788002/ (last visited May 17, 2018).

Torsten Ove, Artist sues Pittsburgh, Allegheny County for destroying murals he created on their buildings, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 30, 2018, http://www.post-gazette.com/ae/art-architecture/2018/04/30/Mural-artist-Pittsburgh-Kyle-Holbrook-lawsuit-federal-Allegheny-County-destruction-contract/stories/201804300177 (last visited May 17, 2018).

Tree painting, moral right or an environmental message?

In 2013 the Houston Arts Alliance (HAA) commissioned artist Konstantin Dimopoulos to create an installation called “Painted Trees” in Houston. The installation used a series of crepe myrtles embedded in one of Houston’s traffic cloverleafs at Waugh and Memorial. Dimopoulos has undertaken similar blue tree projects internationally, hoping to raise awareness for deforestation and draw attention to trees we might otherwise ignore. Here’s a short video of the artist describing the art advocacy project:

Well the artist has been surprised to discover that the work has been reprised/plagiarized/re-celebrated/repeated. Many like me had likely assumed that the artist was repeating the project. Not so, this project was an initiative of the Houston Parks and Recreation department. They painted the same grove of trees, and another grouping, blue and green.

Here’s my own photo of one of the groups I took a few weeks ago:

The Houston Parks and Recreation department painted these crepe myrtles, image from March, 2018.

The art project was a popular surprise to most five years ago. Though It always struck me as odd that the artist and City invited selfie hunters to an area without sidewalks, where you had to dodge unfriendly cars to get a close look.

According to the City, the new project was meant to draw attention to wildflower and prairie plantings that have been done in the area.  The city plants wildflowers in the area most years, and this summer red phlox should bloom amid the green and blue trunks when the crepe myrtles are also blooming. A great thing to look at, and an improvement certainly over a sad strip of roadside mown grass. But has the city of Houston managed to violate the moral rights of Dimopoulos? Or will most of the attraction be owed to the work of mother nature? Texas arts blog Glasstire noted that Dimopoulos’ wife noted in a facebook comment that:

It’s Adele Dimopoulos here, Kon’s wife and business manager. We most certainly do know about the blue trees being copied by city Parks and we are in the process of addressing this through various channels.

We are aware that there is a much bigger issue of copyright and IP for all artists at stake here. So sit tight and let’s see what shakes down.

The artist claims to own rights in the special paint formula that he developed, which is temporary, harmless to the trees, and bright blue. In response Abel Gonzales, the parks department’s deputy director of greenspace management is quoted in the Houston Chronicle this morning that: “We thought we did our homework”, noting he cleared the paint project with parks department planners. And the formula was a new creation of a city employee, combining lime wash and pigment. The artist Dimopolous is quoted in this morning’s Houston Chronicle, and is not a fan:

“It looks horrible, and it really has no relevance anymore here”.

It seems mainly what Dimopoulos wants is an apology from the city, perhaps even removal of the pigment. ON the one hand I can certainly appreciate his position, but if his art was intended to bring attention to deforestation, the amount of water and harm to the trees perhaps shows he wasn’t all that interested in the environmental aspects of his projects. He really wanted individual attention as an artist. Nothing wrong with that of course, but when you have a relatively straightforward idea, that many other artists have likely had, perhaps you should be a little magnanimous when others attempt to carry forward your vision. Am I wrong, is the artist wrong? Let me know in the comments.

 

 

Moving a Street Art Gallery in Austin

Since 2011 the HOPE Outdoor Gallery in Austin has offered permission walls for aspiring street artists. Hope stands for “Helping Other People Everywhere”. The site was a failed condo development which was converted into an outdoor gallery with the help of artist Shepard Fairy in 2011. It has become quite the tourist and Austin attraction. Fairey of course is best known for his OBEY stickers, and the controversy over his successfully lifted Obama HOPE poster.

Now though the park is moving to a new location on 6 acres outside of central Austin near the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The new site should still attract visitors and Instagram photo hunters, but will not be quite so centrally located North of bustling Lamar in the heart of Austin. That property is a valuable piece of land in Austin, and as one of the founders of the HOPE organization which manages the outdoor gallery Andi Scull Cheatham told the Austin Chronicle in 2016:

This project was meant to have a shelf life of a couple years, but once the owner saw how much it had been embraced and loved by the community, he’s done everything he can to keep it going.

The move was approved in February by the Austin Historical Landmark Commission. Part of the cement wall of the existing park will be moved to the new location, but the rest of the walls will be demolished. An amicable arrangement as compared to the 5Pointz dispute.

  1. Craig Hlavaty, Austin’s “Graffiti Park” to be demolished – Houston Chronicle, Houston Chronicle (Jan. 30, 2018), https://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/texas/article/Austin-Graffiti-Park-to-be-demolished-Hope-Outdoor-12536309.php#photo-10133301.
  2. Nicole Raney, Downtown Austin’s iconic graffiti park searches for new home, Austin Culturemap (8.8.2016), http://austin.culturemap.com/news/arts/08-08-16-hope-outdoor-gallery-castle-hill-grafitti-new-location/?platform=hootsuite.
  3. Community bids fond farewell to HOPE Outdoor Gallery | Texas (Feb. 25, 2018), http://www.kxan.com/news/local/austin/community-bids-fond-farewell-to-hope-outdoor-gallery_20180312075742473/1031502585.

Supreme Court Rules Objects from the Persepolis Collection will stay at Chicago

An Image of the excavation at the Palace of Darius at Persepolis involving archaeologists from the University of Chicago in 1939.

The Supreme Court has ruled that victims of a 1997 terrorist attack in Jerusalem cannot satisfy their default judgment by seeking possession of antiquities from Iran which have been on loan to the University of Chicago Oriental Institute since 1937.

Administrative records in Elamite

This collection of objects, the Persepolis Fortification Archive rests in Chicago for a good reason, these thousands of clay tablets have been studied at the University of Chicago with the permission of Iran. It affirms a ruling by the Seventh Circuit.  In 1997 three Hamas suicide bombers detonated themselves in a crowded area in Jerusalem. Eight U.S. citizens who were victims in the attack filed a suit against Iran on the theory that Iran was liable due to its support of Hamas. Iran did not contest the lawsuit, essentially protesting the ability of an american court to hold it liable, and so a $71.5 million default judgment was entered against Iran.

Since then the plaintiffs have attempted to satisfy the judgment. At issue in this case were collections of antiquities which are being held by the Oriental Institute and the Field Museum. In most cases, the property of a foreign State is immune from this kind of suit, but some provisions of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act might have offered an exception to this immunity according to the plaintiffs. However the Supreme Court disagreed in a technical decision of interpretation in a unanimous opinion found insufficient grounds to allow the plaintiff’s to attach the cultural objects.

I had hopes that the opinion might offer a chance that the Supreme Court to offer ideas on the special status of antiquities or cultural objects, but those hopes were dashed. This was a technical opinion which made no mention of culture, heritage, or cultural property. Any special status of works of art or objects of antiquity will have to be inferred. Lawyers for the Republic of Iran did begin their brief by noting:

Petitioners seek to satisfy their default judgment by seizing ancient Persian artifacts loaned to an American museum almost a century ago for academic study. That sort of cultural property – a nation’s historic patrimony – has long been immune from execution. Instead, execution has historically been limited to commercial property and commercial entities. Nothing in § 1610(g) contemplates the dramatic departure from well-accepted immunity principles that petitioners now propose.

Rubin v. Islamic Repbublic of Iran, No. 16-534 (U.S. 2018).