Two recent antiquities cases in the US

Posted on: July 7, 2017 by

A warning for museums?

There have been two interesting recent developments relating to antiquities: one regarding allegedly looted antiquities, the other regarding artefacts at the centre of a legal storm that has been brewing for some 15 years; both involve the United States of America.

The first is the action brought by US District Attorneys to seize some 3,450 ancient artefacts intended for the Museum of the Bible, a still-to-be-completed museum in Washington DC. These pieces are alleged by the US authorities to have come out of Iraq illegally. As Donna Yates at Anonymous Swiss Collector has explained, this was apparently a long time in the making and those in the know have had their suspicions about the provenance of the artefacts for a while now. As she says, anyone looking to develop a collection of so many artefacts in a relatively short period of time is bound to run into troubles of this sort. Iraq has had strict cultural heritage and export laws for roughly 100 years and, since 2003, a UN Security Council resolution has required countries to bar the import or dealing in cultural property exported from Iraq after 1990. So anything with unclear provenance coming to market recently will inevitably be problematic.

The Field Museum in Chicago, one of two institutions caught up in a claim for Iranian antiquities. Photo: Fritz Geller-Grimm CC BY-SA 2.5.

The second matter relates to a longstanding case in the US courts involving a large number of Persian antiquities currently held at two Chicago institutions, the Field Museum and the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. The case was brought by the American victims of a 1997 terrorist attack in West Jerusalem. The attack victims had succeeded in proving to a US court that the attack had been sponsored by Iran (by its funding of the Palestinian terrorist organisation, Hamas) and so have had their sights set on a number of Iranian artefacts in US museums for a good few years. They brought claims against museums in Massachusetts (including the Harvard Museums and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, a case I wrote about for Art Antiquity and Law in 2013), Michigan and Illinois, but so far had not had much luck.

In relation to the items held at the Chicago museums, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals had found against the attachment order sought by the victims. An ‘attachment order’ is a legal mechanism that allows successful applicants to effectively gain rights to property held by defendants in order to have that property seized and sold off, with the proceeds used to satisfy the applicants.

Here, the victims were hoping that an attachment order could be obtained on the Persian tablets belonging to Iran. It is true that the artefacts originally came from Iran and title still appears to be held by that country, but they have been at these US institutions since the 1930s, undergoing extensive conservation, reparation and interpretation work (they are written in an ancient Persian text, which only a handful of people can still decode). The problem for the Court of Appeals was that this sort of (very) long-term loan for research purposes does not appear to be commercial. And without a commercial element, it would be impossible in circumstances such as these to seize property of a foreign state located in the US – thanks to something called the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a federal US law.

However, this last point was appealed to the Supreme Court, which just last week agreed to hear the appeal. The Court receives roughly 8,000 requests for appeal a year (called petitions for writ of certiorari), and only accepts about 80, so the fact that the judges have chosen this particular request shows the importance of the legal point to be decided.

A Persian clay tablet originally from the Persepolis site in Iran, subject to the current dispute that will now be heard by the US Supreme Court later this year.

This is not good news for the museums themselves, who have had to put up with this dark cloud hanging over them for well over a decade, not to mention the costs required for legal defence. This is unfortunate, and certainly not an enviable situation. What the seemingly never-ending case does demonstrate, though, is that a museum can never be too confident about the status of its collection. A claim can materialise seemingly out of thin air. And here, one wonders how many Ancient Middle East curators would have expected that a prized collection of artefacts sitting in the research wing for over two generations would get caught up in the fallout from a latter-day terrorist attack in Israel. The answer is none.

Such situations are of course spectacularly rare. Truth is, it would be difficult to conceive of a parallel situation outside the US. Nevertheless, this demonstrates the importance of always being aware of what exactly is in a collection and what the corollary risks might be, even if those risks are negligible. Because the ground can shift in an instant. And museums always need to be prepared.