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