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).

$6.7 Million Award for 5Pointz Artists

5Pointz before it was whitewashed

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.

International Cultural Heritage Course in Malta this Summer


Ħaġar Qim is a megalithic temple complex dating to 3200 BCE

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:

Valletta, Malta

Air strike damages Iron Age temple of Ain Dara

Ain Dara, with a view of the entrance to the temple showing the footsteps carved in the floor, which were meant to show the path of the divine entering the temple. Via Wikimedia.

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:

An image of the complex after the alleged Turkish air strikes provided by the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums

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.

A large basalt lion, discovered in 1955 via wikimedia.


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.

Here is some first-hand video from AFP:

International law was unable to prevent this destruction, the open question is whether it will provide a remedy. And if there is a remedy, who will seek it? Syria? A Kurdish state?