Terrorism and Antiquities

Last week Lee Rosenbaum noted the Met’s “Beyond Babylon” show was unable to exhibit 55 planned objects from Syria because of the possibility that victims of terrorism might attempt to seize the objects to satisfy judgments. This is the predicted outflow of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act provision and another ongoing dispute over the Persepolis Fortification Tablets, briefly discussed here. A group of plaintiffs has sued Iran for a terrorist bombing which took place in Jerusalem in 1997. Iran did not defend the suit, so the defendants have attempted to satisfy the judgment by using

Judith Weingarten, an archaeologist, has a very good extended discussion of the Met’s difficulty, and a great rundown with links of the ongoing tablets dispute over at IntLawGrrls:

The tablets are not commercial assets like oil wells, tankers, or houses. Instead, these types of culturally unique and important materials fall within a special protected category and are not subject to seizure. This trove of tablets has never been a commercial item to be bought or sold. The tablets have never been a source of profit either to Iran or to the Oriental Institute. They are non-commercial items of cultural heritage, every bit as unique and important as the original document of the Constitution of the United States. (Imagine if a future Iraqi government were to put a lien on that document.) The stakes are enormous. If the lawsuit prevails, this would do irrevocable harm to scholarly cooperation and cultural exchanges throughout the world.
That is already starting to happen. The Syrian government had offered to lend the Met invaluable parts of their cultural heritage: many of these objects that had never left the country before. Of American institutions, only the Met has the resources to pull off such a project, which depends as much on personal contacts as on cash. That little card on the wall doesn’t say it all.
The Met submitted applications for immunity from seizure for all the borrowed foreign works — including pieces from Armenia, Georgia, Greece, Lebanon and Turkey, as well as Syria — but finally decided that the FSIA amendment jeopardized the Syrian loans. Though not on display, the 55 Syrian objects are in the catalog. There you can see how important a role they played in the internationalist narrative conceived by Joan Aruz (right), the curator in charge of the Met’s department of ancient Near Eastern art.

Interesting points. As museums continue to find it harder and harder to acquire new objects, loans are a great substitute which alleviates pressure on the existing regulatory framework. When leases become difficult as well, American courts and lawmakers ought to seriously consider whether the attachment of these antiquities really is the best way to proceed.

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

1 thought on “Terrorism and Antiquities”

  1. Without getting into the merits of this dispute, I’m not sure the statement about the cultural significance of the tablets makes all that much sense from a real world perspective. Similar tablets have been available for sale quite legally for generations. (Indeed, I understand that in the early 1900’s an archaeologist even sold thousands from a trove he discovered in various department stores around the country.) Moreover, once photographed and translated, I also understand that their scholarly value is limited as well. Of course, some tablets are much more significant than others depending on their subject matter, but most really just record things like bushels of wheat in granaries. In my opinion, comparing them as a class to the Constitution just represents more of the hyperbole we hear too often from members of the archaeological community. Such hyperbole only helps obscure the issues and stifle debate about such matters. As such, it should be condemned.

    Sincerely,

    Peter Tompa

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