Persepolis Fragment on Sale

This Persepolis relief fragment owned by Denyse Berend will be up for sale at a Christie’s auction on October 25th. Iran temporarily blocked the last auction in an unsuccessful bid to reclaim the fragment. You can read about the case and my reaction to the High court decision by clicking on the label below.

All indications are that Iran will not bid on the fragment. I wonder if there was any attempt by Iran to work out a compromise with Mme. Berend?

I’m reminded of a 2004 article by Professor James Nafziger (A Blueprint for Avoiding and Resolving Cultural Heritage Disputes, 9 Art, Antiquity and Law 3 (2004)). In it he points out that cultural heritage disputes are adversarial. In this case, both parties have solid, and perhaps legitimate arguments but only one side will retain the tablet. He discusses the parable of the two sisters, each of whom wants one orange:

How should it be allocated? One solution would be to award the orange to the sister with the greater ‘rights’ to the orange. That is the strictly adversarial approach that often characterizes the formal resolution of cultural property disputes today. A second solution would be to award half of the orange to each of the sisters, an appealing compromise until it becomes apparent that one sister wants the orange only to eat its pulp whereas the other wants only the orange peel for cooking. Thus, although compromises may often be preferable to either/or solutions, they typically fail to take contending interests, as opposed to stated positions, into account. A third, better informed allocation of the disputed orange would be to encourage the sisters to express their respective interests in the orange and then to work out a mutually productive, more-than-zero-sum solution to a dispute.

Professor Nafziger and the International Law Association have proposed a more collaborative process which has a great deal of merit I think. In this case, Mme. Berend wants to sell the tablet without admitting any wrongdoing, and Iran wants the tablet returned, and perhaps a vindication that its cultural heritage has been taken. Surely there is a middle ground here? In any event the auction will be quite interesting, and I wonder if Iran’s legal challenge will have an impact on the purchase price. It could open any cultural institutions to an ethical claim for repatriation or it more likely cemented the purchaser’s title which is now beyond legal challenge.
(Hat tip to Chuck Jones for alerting me to the auction).

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Case Note in the International Journal of Cultural Property

On SSRN I’ve just posted my case note Rejecting Renvoi for Movable Cultural Property: The Islamic Republic of Iran V. Denyse Berend 14 Int’l J. Cultural Prop. Issue 01, pp 111-120 You can download the article here. Here is the abstract:

In Iran v. Berend, the High Court in London had occasion to revisit one of the most enduring problems of private international law and cultural property. Effective regulation of the illicit market in cultural property is extremely difficult, because many measures aimed at stemming the illicit trade actually contribute to the black market. Courts in both England and the United States have shown that they are prepared to use criminal laws to convict persons involved in the illegal trade in antiquities exported in violation of foreign patrimony laws. As a result, much cultural property policy debate in recent years has focused on the extent to which the criminal law can impact the illicit trade. The extent to which national ownership declarations can be used in civil disputes remains less clear.

I would especially like to thank the Case Notes Editor Robert Paterson of the University of British Columbia for all his help editing the note. If there are any comments to the piece, I would love to hear them.

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No renvoi in Iran v. Berend (UPDATE)

The opinion in Iran v. Berend [2007] EWHC 132 (QB) has been released.

The dispute involved a fragment of an Achaemenid limestone relief from the city of Persepolis. This image, which I took from an organization called Cultural Heritage News, compares Berend’s limestone, with the site in Persepolis. It makes for pretty damning evidence. The Cultural Heritage News agency is operated out of Iran, and I’m not sure where they get their funding, and their articles on this dispute strike me as a bit one-sided. Nevertheless, they did provide a good background to the dispute.

Denyse Berend purchased the limestone fragment in 1974. As the opinion states, “It was sold to her through an agent at a New York auction in October 1974.” The object has been on display in Berend’s Paris apartment since the purchase. Iran brought suit against Berend when she tried to sell it at an auction at Christie’s London in 2005.

The dispute ultimately came down to which nation’s law should apply to the dispute, France or Iran. Under Iranian law, the object would be returned, but under French law, the 30 year statute of limitations period had elapsed, and Berend would have clear title. Two conflicting private international law principles were at play here. First, is the lex situs doctrine which holds that the law of the location of the object at the time of the transaction should apply. Under that rule, French law would apply.

Iran wanted Justice Eady to apply the rule of renvoi, which would have dictated that Iranian law would apply. The renvoi choice of law principle occurs whenever a court is called upon to interpret the law of another nation. It has been applied to wills and some family law, though never to movable objects.

No English court has applied renvoi to movables, and it seams Justice Eady was reluctant to do the same in this case. According to Wikipedia, a recent Australian High court decision applied the rule in Neilson v Overseas Projects Corporation of Victoria Ltd [2005] HCA 54 (29 September 2005). In that case, the Australian High Court applied the rule in a tort case. The plaintiff injured herself in an apartment in China. The apartment was overseen by her husband’s employer, an Australian company. The court applied the law of Australia, because both parties to the suit were Australian. Applying the Australian court’s logic to this case, it doesn’t seem likely that the principle of renvoi would be applicable, and even in the Australian case, there seems to be a great deal of criticism of the decision.

Eady was understandably reluctant to go out on a limb and apply the principle in this case. As he said, “English law has held for many years, in order partly to achieve consistency and certainty, that where movble property is concerned title should be determined by the lex situs of the property at the time when the disputed title is said to have been acquired.”

I wonder if Iran may choose to appeal the decision. In any event, though the limestone relief seems to have clearly come from Persepolis, Iran has no legal right to the object under English law. On a side note, there may be damages stemming from the grant of the original injunction against Berend’s attempted auction of the object at Christies in London. One wonders why Iran did not pursue its claims in 1974, when the object was first sold. I wonder as well whether the 2005 auction had taken place in Christie’s New York, rather than London, if the more generous statute of limitations provision would have allowed for a much different result.


Over at the Journal of Private International Law’s blog,, Martin George has gone into some more detail on the choice of law implications at play in the decision. He rightly points out that an English court adopting a renvoi rule for movable property would have caused a lot of headaches. However, he misses the cultural policy implications: the limestone relief was almost certainly taken from Persepolis. The relief came from what is essentially the Persian Acropolis. In the event the ruling stands (which seems most likely) look for Iran to press for the return of the relief based on ethical principles. In any event, the potential sum the relief may bring at an auction seem quite diminished. I wonder if Berend and Iran may try to work out some kind of a settlement. It seems likely that quite a few potential purchasers have been scared away by the Iranian claims.


I have noticed a lot of folks are still interested in this case. For a much better and complex account of the decision you can download my case note published by the International Journal of Cultural Property here.

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