Persepolis Relief seized from New York Art Fair

A fragment of a bas-relief from the city of Persepolis, dating from the 5th Century B.C.E.

On Friday afternoon New York prosecutors and police officers seized a limestone relief which once decorated a building from the ancient Persian city of Persepolis. The New York Times reported that “cursing could be heard” from the booth. The seized bas-relief, valued at an estimated $1.2 million dollars was being offered for sale by Rupert Wace, a London-based antiquities dealer. In a statement, Wace argued that the stone fragment “has been well known to scholars and has a history that spans almost 70 years.”

According to Wace, the relief was donated to a Canadian museum in the early 1950s. It was on regular display until it was stolen from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2011. It was recovered by Canadian authorities, but rather than seek the return of the object, the museum decided to keep the insurance payout given by AXA Insurance Company. AXA then had title to the object, which sold it to Wace.

What then is the crime committed which would lead to a seizure? I have not had a look at the warrant, so I’m speculating here, but reportedly it alleges the bas-relief was stolen. Likely because it was removed from Iran after the enactment of an ownership declaration. That argument has not been helpful on its own for material from Iran when Iran initiated an unsuccessful civil lawsuit against Denyse Berend for another bas-relief removed from Persepolis before the Revolution.

This case may be different though, as this is a criminal seizure, not a private suite. Iran declared ownership of objects like this one in 1930. Adding to the claim is the immovable nature of this bas-relief. It had been affixed to the wall for 25 centuries before it was removed.

The Apadana Palace at Persepolis.

This object may have been transported in the modern era, but had been designed and crafted to stay on a wall as part of a monument. This seizure pushes up against some of the oldest successful seizure of illicit material, and has as one obstacle the passage of time. On the other hand though is the reality that this object was part of a monument, Persepolis, which was granted World Heritage Status in 1979.

The Antiquities Trade Gazette reported that the Art Loss Register was responsible for vetting objects at the fair. James Ratcliffe, the director of recoveries and general counsel at the Art Loss Register stated:

We understand this piece was seized and although we’ve not seen an official explanation for this we gather it relates to the possibility that it was taken from Persepolis unlawfully. Given that it was on public display in a museum for over 60 years it will be interesting to see how the claim develops.

Indeed it will. What claims Wace will offer to defend his possession of the object, and what claims he may have against AXA or other predecessors up the chain of possession will be interesting to watch. One thing is certain though, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office is vigorously policing the antiquities trade at a level not seen in the United States or elsewhere. Dealers of illicit cultural property are on notice.

  1. Laura Chesters, Persian limestone sculpture seized by police from antiquities dealer at TEFAF New York Antiquities Trade Gazette (2017), https://www.antiquestradegazette.com/news/2017/persian-limestone-sculpture-seized-by-police-from-antiquities-dealer-at-tefaf-new-york/ (last visited Oct 30, 2017).
  2. James C. McKinley Jr, Ancient Limestone Relief Is Seized at European Art Fair, The New York Times, October 29, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/29/arts/design/ancient-limestone-relief-seized-european-fine-art-fair.html (last visited Oct 30, 2017).
  3. Stolen artifact from Montreal museum recovered in Edmonton, CBC News (2014), http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/stolen-artifact-from-montreal-museum-recovered-in-edmonton-1.2535754 (last visited Oct 30, 2017).

Seventh Circuit Rules Terrorist Victims Attachment Request Against Iran was Overbroad

Clay Tablets from Persepolis, Similar to the Objects at Issue

David Grann reports for the Chronicle of Education on the Seventh Circuit decision which will make it exceedingly difficult for victims of a 1997 bombing in Jerusalem to secure Persian antiquities to satisfy their default $90 million judgment against Iran. The underlying dispute involved the plaintiffs successful action against Iran for supporting Hamas. Iran did not appear at the civil trial.

Today’s ruling dealt with the more limited question of whether the plaintiffs can use pieces of cultural heritage currently situated in the United States to satisfy the judgment against Iran. As a result you have the unlikely combination of Iran, the Field Museum, the University of Chicago and the Oriental Institute all arguing that these objects are immune from suit.

I was quoted in the story, and as I wrote Grann this afternoon, Museums holding objects from other nations are breathing easier. The long-standing principle in U.S. law is that property of foreign nations is immune from suit in the United States. Courts were given some guidance in 1976 when Congress passed the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act which outlined the circumstances under which this immunity could be lifted. Yet as the three-judge panel held today, the orders by the Magistrate and the District court both conflicted sharply with the FSIA, as they ordered what the court called a sweeping discovery request. That request would have forced Iran to detail all of its assets in the United States.

The opinion is a big win for Iran and the museums which currently hold the Persian antiquities. The Seventh Circuit—which agreed with a prior holding in 2006 in Rubin v. Islamic Republic of Iran—has said these objects are presumed to be immune, and even if Iran decides not to challenge the attachment, a court even on its own must look for a good exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act. Courts are going to be very cautious when attaching the property of foreign nations, as that really falls squarely under the foreign policy authority of the Executive Branch.

Other courts have been similarly disposed to claims of domestic plaintiffs seeking attachment of Iranian cultural heritage in the United States. (Rubin v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 456 F. Supp. 2d 228 (D. Mass. 2006). Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombing in question, and the Rubin plaintiffs brought civil actions against Hamas, and also to Iran for providing material support and finance for the bombing. Experts testified that Iran provided both economic assistance from between $20 and $50 million dollars, and also terrorist training.

  1. David Glenn, U. of Chicago and Museums Win Key Ruling in Legal Battle Over Iranian Antiquities, The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 29, 2011, http://chronicle.com/article/U-of-ChicagoMuseums-Win/126923/ (last visited Mar 29, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Should Cultural Property be used to satisfy judgments?


There has been increasing attention paid lately to the use of art and antiquities to satisfy unrelated judgments against nations. In 2005, Russia had a $1 billion shipment of 54 paintings from Moscow’s Pushkin Fine Arts Museum seized at the Swiss border to satisfy Russian debts owed to Noga.

Similarly, in 2003 a group of American plaintiffs won a $90 million judgment against the Islamic Republic of Iran for a suicide bombing which took place in Jerusalem in 1997. James Wawrzniak Jr., a recent Harvard Law graduate has posted an excellent working paper on bepress titled Rubin v. The Islamic Republic of Iran: A Struggle for control of Persian Antiquities in America. It is likely to be published next fall.

Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombing in question, and the Rubin plaintiffs brought civil actions against Hamas, and also to Iran for providing material support and finance for the bombing. Experts testified that Iran provided both economic assistance from between $20 and $50 million dollars, and also terrorist training. Now I’m sure many readers would be quick to point out the US has given similar aid to similar groups, perhaps even during this Sunni awakening in Iraq, in which the US is essentially paying Sunnis to stop attacking coalition forces. I imagine Iran would have had a vigorous potential defense, however a default judgment was entered, whereby Iran essentially ignored the suit. Iran has since changed their stance after the Rubin plaintiffs decided to execute the $90 million judgment by claiming Persian antiquities in museum collections across the country. I’ll defer to Wawrzniak’s analysis as to what has transpired, but this litigation seems destined to last a number of more years.

One one level I can sympathize with plaintiffs who attempt to satisfy their judgments in this way. However, such a strategy, if taken to its logical conclusion would have troubling consequences for the cross-border movement of works of art. This was an issue in the recent dispute over the Royal Academy display of “From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925 From Moscow and St. Petersburg”. Russia nearly backed out of the deal, eager to avoid a replay of the Portriat of Wally litigation.

The display required an act of Parliament to grant special immunity to prevent the works from being claimed by descendants of the original owners from whom many of the works were summarily seized during the Bolshevik revolution.

The question is, are the cultural benefits Great Britain and Russia share by viewing these masterworks, many never seen in London before? I think there is, and this cross-border movement of art is an important ideal which should be preserved, the recent string of nazi spoliation, and terrorist and other claims are important, and those victims deserve their day in court. However it should not be at the expense of our collective cultural heritage.

(Photo: Wassily Kandinsky Composition VII, 1913 on loan to the Royal Academy)

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

High Court in London Denies Iranian Ownership Claim


A frustratingly sketchy Reuters article indicates that Iran has lost in its attempt to reclaim a carved limestone relief, like this one, from the ancient city of Persepolis. Unfortunately, its an example of shoddy legal reporting. It only gives us the result. It provides none of the legal arguments. An earlier story from The Telegraph gives a good background. The dispute was between Denyse Berend, who purchased the relief in New York in 1974, and Iran. It seems Iran was arguing that the relief was removed sometime after the city was first excavated in 1932 by Ernst Herzfeld. If I had to guess, I would say the High Court ruled in favor of Berend because too much time has passed since she bought the object. More than likely, Iran has let the Statute of Limitations run. Frequently, the issue of whether a claimant has brought a timely action is outcome determinative. When I can get my hands on the opinion, I’ll write more. It could be a significant decision, as it might give us a better idea of the law in England and Wales regarding foreign patrimony laws.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com