Lawsuits and Antiquities

So as some of you know, I have a fascination with antiquities and repatriation issues. In other words, I find the debate/controversy over whether ancient artifacts should be returned to their host country. Last week, there was an important decision that came down by a federal judge about Persian artifacts held at the Oriental Institute and Field Museum. The judge ruled that these artifacts could not be claimed as settlement for victims of a Hamas attack in 1997.

Here is the article in the Tribune.  The basic outline was that several people were hurt when 3 Hamas suicide bombers exploded bombs with shrapnel in a mall in Jerusalem in 1997.  The victims sued Iran who funded Hamas but when Iran failed to show up to court, the judge “awarded a default judgment of $412 million.” Unsurprisingly, the victims have not been paid. So a lawyer of the victims tried to claim the Persian artifacts as property of Iran so they could be used to pay the settlement.

I’ve been watching this claim for a while since it has incredible implications in the antiquities and repatriation debate. I’m glad that the judge ruled against the claim since I think it would be a catastrophe if the Persian tablets were divided. While the victims are certainly owned compensation for their tragic losses and injuries, this is not the way to go about it. I don’t know what is correct but this action is basically legal looting. How much would be lost if that collection were divided! The pieces need to stay together (or in two groups) with experts.

So while I’m relieved at the ruling,  it concerns me that  the Judge ruled against the plaintiff because  it was questionable if Iran actually owned these artifacts. I should note that the tablets were obtained prior to the Islamic Revolution so there are questions on who owns the artifacts. (Also, it’s an interesting fact that we have held on to them as well). Regardless, I can’t help to think what would have happened if the artifacts had belonged to Iran? Would the Judge have allowed the collection to be split up? It would be have been tragic to watch the collection disappear into private collections, lost to the sun of academia.

This lawsuit points to some unintended consequences of repatriation. I think repatriation is important and that looting is destructive to everyone. However, if a country can claim all artifacts found under its modern borders, which many do, could they be sued for these artifacts to pay back fines, back loans and more. Clearly, one lawsuit tried to make that claim. At an extreme, what if artifacts are used as loan collateral? I don’t like this one bit.

Legally, I have no idea. Maybe this argument is legally sound and that artifacts could be used to pay fines of delinquent countries one way or another. But the repercussions will hurt origin countries with their claims. It would be even more incentive for countries like the US and Britain to not return items. The old argument “It’s safer with us than it’s country of origin” would ring true in a new way. Don’t give it back because they’ll lose it in a lawsuit.

Maybe there should be a treaty that stipulates that artifacts can’t be used in this way. Maybe there already is.

That’s all for now.

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