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