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.
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.
A federal court has held that the real estate developer Jerry Wolkoff is liable for intentionally destroying 45 works of art when they were whitewashed in 2013, amounting to a total award of $6.75 million dollars. The ruling comes as a bit of a surprise given the limited success of artists under the Visual Artists Rights Act in the past.
Jerry Wolkoff purchased the vacant factory in the 1970s in Brooklyn after manufacturing had left the area. Graffiti artists asked him for permission to display their art on the building in the 1990s, and he agreed. The building then became a haven for graffitie, even a renowned attraction. An artist Jonathan Cohen, otherwise known as Meres One, started acting as a curator of the space in 2002.
By 2013 the factory had become a valuable piece of real estate, and Wolkoff had plans to demolish the site and start a new development on the. The site had been much beloved by then, and so the artists brought suit to prevent the destruction of the art. That injunction was unsuccessful, and so Wolkoff immediately whitewashed the art, a willful act that seems to have been the primary driver for Judge Block’s scathing decision:
If not for Wolkoff’s insolence, these damages would not have been assessed. If he did not destroy 5Pointz until he received his permits and demolished it 10 months later, the Court would not have found that he had acted willfully. Given the degree of difficulty in proving actual damages, a modest amount of statutory damages would probably have been more in order.
The shame of it all is that since 5Pointz was a prominent tourist attraction the public would undoubtedly have thronged to say its goodbyes during those 10 months and gaze at the formidable works of aerosol art for the last time. It would have been a wonderful tribute for the artists that they richly deserved.
The ruling may be appealed, but the decision marks an important precedent for works of visual art and especially works of temporary art. Landscape art, graffiti, and other similar works may be impacted by the ruling.
On one hand this ruling stands as an obvious victory for the artists themselves. But taken in the broader context, will future property developers be wary about inviting graffiti artists? Perhaps street art has become so popular and ubiquitous now, that there will not be a chilling effect of future uses of derelict buildings for graffiti exhibitions like Cohen helped create.
This summer I’m slated to teach a two-credit hour course on International Cultural Heritage Law in Valletta, Malta. Valletta will serve as Europe’s 2018 Capital of Culture. Malta is a wonderful setting—Baroque architecture, outstanding works by Caravaggio, and we hold classes in the World’s first planned Renaissance city, Valletta.
My course examines the intersection between law and heritage. We study disputes over ancient sites, works of art, and antiquities. A particular emphasis will also be the legal instruments which prohibit the intentional destruction and whole-scale looting of ancient culture. We will examine international conventions, domestic laws, and analyze the prominent cases which have arisen over cultural heritage disputes.
Students at ABA-approved U.S. law schools in good standing are eligible to apply. Information about the other courses, and information about applying can be found here:
Bombs have destroyed much of the Iron Age temple of Ain Dara in Northern Syria. Reporting indicates the temple was the target of an air strike conducted by Turkey. The temple dated to the 9th century BCE, and was perhaps of a similar design to Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. The Hittite temple had survived for 3,000 years, and it has been reported that the temple was deliberately targeted.
Here is a similar view of the temple after the airstrike:
The damage seems extensive. Martin Bailey reported for the Art Newspaper that:
Turkey’s air force bombed Ain Dara as part of its military offensive against the Syrian militia YPG (People’s Protection Units), a mainly Kurdish faction which is fighting for autonomy from the Damascus regime of president Bashar al-Assad. The Ankara government is concerned that Syrian Kurds are supporting Kurdish separatists and terrorists in Turkey.
There are claims that the temple was deliberately targeted, an action that would certainly contravene the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property during armed conflict. It may even be classified as an action of intentional destruction. The temple has been photographed and documented, so at least some of this damage may be alleviated with modern reconstructions.
Museums are home to millions of artworks and cultural artifacts, some of which have made their way to these institutions through unjust means. Some argue that these objects should be repatriated (i.e., returned to their country, culture, or owner of origin). However, these arguments face a series of philosophical challenges. In particular, repatriation, even if justified, is often portrayed as contrary to the aims and values of museums. However, in this paper, I argue that some of the very considerations museums appeal to in order to oppose repatriation claims can be turned on their heads and marshaled in favor of the practice. In addition to defending against objections to repatriation, this argument yields the surprising conclusion that the redistribution of cultural goods should be much more radical than is typically supposed.
An interesting argument, and it sounds to me like he is making a case for cultural justice.
Manhattan prosecutors have continued to pursue the seizure of antiquities in 2018. Yesterday the NYT reported that investigators seized several antiquities from Michael Steinhardt. Steinhardt has been the focus of much of the investigative thrust directed at the antiquities trade. Chasing Aphrodite thoroughly discussed Steinhardt in the recent seizure of a Bull’s head originating from Lebanon. Steinhardt is a noteworthy figure as he was an early pioneer in hedge funds, reportedly worth billions, who has also collected antiquities. One of the galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is named for him. He has also continued to acquire antiquities even as investigations and repatriations have continued in recent decades.
The Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr. has done much to use his office to secure the return of looted antiquities. That trend looks to continue with the creation of a new Antiquities Trafficking Unit, led by assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos, a Marine who investigated the theft and looting of antiquities from Iraq during the U.S.-led invasion in the early 2000s. The investigation into these objects joins a long list of other investigations that the Manhattan DA’s office has successfully undertaken in 2017, including the return of a marble bull’s head to Lebanon which had been on loan to the Met, the return of an ancient limestone bas-relief on display at the European Fine Art Fair a the Park Avenue Armory, the return of a remnant from one of Caligula’s ships perhaps stolen from an Italian Museum before the Second World War, and other investigations.
These investigations have resulted in the seizure of a great deal of material. Prosecutions of individuals remain elusive. Steinhardt has had very valuable antiquities seized from him before, yet he has continued to acquire this material. Whether this investigation will be able to change his behavior, and the behavior of others is an open question. The Manhattan DA’s office would not comment on the specific grounds for the seizures of these objects, other than the use of New York’s state theft statute. The NYT notes that though Steinhardt has had many object seized, he has not been the subject of any charges for possessing this allegedly stolen material.
The NYT reported that the material seized from Steinhardt included:
[A] Greek white-ground attic lekythos — or oil vessel — from the fifth century B.C., depicting a funeral scene with the figures of a woman and a youth, according to the search warrant. It is worth at least $380,000.
Also seized were Proto-Corinthian figures from the seventh century B.C., depicting an owl and a duck, together worth about $250,000. The other pieces included an Apulian terra-cotta flask in the shape of an African head from the fourth century B.C.; an Ionian sculpture of a ram’s head from the sixth century; and an attic aryballos, a vessel for oil or perfume, from the early fifth century. The objects were all bought in the last 12 years for a total cost of $1.1 million, according to the warrants.
Conservation is not a conservative principle anymore. Today President Trump signed presidential proclamations that will take the unprecedented step of dramatically shrinking two national monuments in Utah. The moves are largely seen as favors to Senator Orin Hatch, a frequent Trump apologist. This part of the American West frequently suffers from antiquities looting on the part of local residents, and the designation of these monuments was an important step to reduce the destruction and looting of these sites. A step that the Trump administration now is attempting to undo.
The reductions in these national monuments are a seldom-used step, one few other presidents have considered since the Antiquities Act was created in 1906. The New York Times reported that reductions have occurred before—Woodrow Wilson reduced the size of Mount Olympus, and Franklin Roosevelt reduced the size of the Grand Canyon monument.
Trump’s attempted reduction in size is not yet known, and will have to survive likely legal challenges, but mark an unfortunate step away from preservation of natural and cultural heritage. Instead the short-sighted move seems to prioritize development, mineral extraction, and ranching. Tribal groups are likely to be impacted most directly, and as a result some have already announced plans to challenge the reduction in court. The Navajo Nation in a statement declared:
The decision to reduce the size of the [Bears Ears] Monument is being made with no tribal consultation. The Navajo Nation will defend Bear Ears . . . . The reduction in the size of the Monument leaves us no choice but to litigate this decision.