In 1933, archaeologists with the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago made an astounding discovery. While excavating the ruins of the imperial complex at Persepolis in southwestern Iran, they unearthed 15,000 to 30,000 clay tablets and fragments. The Persepolis Fortification Tablets, as these artifacts have come to be known, consist of administrative records from the middle period of Darius I’s reign (509-494 B.C.). By studying these objects collectively, scholars have discovered webs of connections and parallels between individual inscriptions. Through comparison, researchers have been able to draw important conclusions about the Archaemenid governmental structure. The tablets also bear seals, images that serve as signatures for the tablet’s creators, which have taught art historians about the nature and evolution of Archaemenid visual culture. While approximately two thirds of these artifacts have been returned to Iran, thousands of tablets and fragments have yet to be studied and temporarily remain in the Oriental Institute’s collection. Unfortunately, the existence of the extraordinary collection and the untapped wellspring of information it contains is being threatened by an ongoing court case.
In 2001, nine American victims of a 1997 Hamas-orchestrated bombing in Israel brought suit against Iran for funding the terrorist organization in a case entitled Rubin v. Iran. In 1993, the plaintiffs were awarded damages totaling approximately $71.5 million and Iran was ordered to pay an additional $300 million in punitive damages, (three times Iran’s annual budget for supporting terrorist groups). After the verdict, the plaintiffs found that collecting payment from a reluctant Iran would be extraordinarily difficult. After a few unsuccessful attempts, their lawyers proposed an unorthodox strategy: they decided to go after Iranian artifacts in American museums. At the Oriental Institute, the plaintiffs’ attorneys targeted the Persepolis Fortification archive and the Chogha Mish collection. The latter body of artifacts proved that humans had occupied the region 1000 years earlier than previously suspected. The victims also sought to recover the Herzfeld collection from the Field Museum in Chicago, which consisted of hundreds or ornaments, prehistoric bronze objects and other artifacts. In Boston, they targeted Iranian antiquities in the collection of Harvard and the Museum of Fine Arts. The Massachusetts claims were further complicated by the fact that both institutions involved maintain that they, not the government of Iran, own the Iranian antiquities in their respective collections.
While the Rubin plaintiffs are entitled to compensation for the horrendous atrocity perpetrated against them, unique, priceless artifacts should not be substituted for monetary assets or other types of property. The antiquities in question are an important part of Iranian cultural heritage. They belong to the people of Iran, not its government. Additionally, if the objects are awarded to the plaintiffs, they would be sold at auction and collections would be broken up. Their dispersal would greatly impact future scholarship – a loss for the entire world. The dissemination at auction of the Persepolis Fortification Tablets would be particularly tragic. These artifacts are useful to scholars because of their great number and because they can be studied as components of a system. Individually, they simply record insignificant transactions. Together, the tablets are being used to draw patterns about how a highly complex administrative system operated.
In addition to depriving Iranians of their cultural property, a decision to turn over the artifacts to the Rubin plaintiffs would have grave effects for the museums involved and cultural institutions in general. Four American institutions could be divested of objects currently in their collections and unable to use them for research purposes. In the case of the Oriental Institute, an opportunity to complete a ground-breaking research project that has been in process for over 70 years would be lost. The fallout from this case will also politicize art pieces and perhaps make countries think twice before sending their national treasures abroad for the purpose of scholarship – a potential problem for the entire museum and university community.
The use of the Iranian antiquities to satisfy the Rubin judgment could also put American cultural property at risk and cause foreign policy complications for the United States. The U.S. Government has filed several statements of interest with the court expressing these concerns. On June 6, 2006 Abbas Salimi-Namin, the former head of Iran’s Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization sent a letter to the United Nations that illustrates the potential for problems. The missive demanded the immediate return of the tablets. While the Oriental Institute had previously enjoyed a good relationship with Iran based on a shared interest in gleaning knowledge from the tablets, the letter accused the museum of keeping the objects “on various grounds and pretexts” and ominously suggested that if the antiquities are turned over to the terror victims, American museums with objects in Iran would “face a similar measure from Tehran.”