After a prolonged legal dispute, a U.S. district court judge ruled Thursday that Harvard can keep a collection of Persian tablets, defeating an attempt to obtain the artifacts in order to collect damages against the Iranian government.
Jenny Rubin, who is leading the effort, is part of a group of four Americans who were injured in a triple suicide attack in 1997 in Jerusalem. Following the attacks, they sued the Iranian government for damages, claiming that Iranian support for Hamas—who claimed responsibility for the attack—made Tehran liable for damages.
An American court ruled that Iran owed the victims of the attack $423.5 million dollars, but Iran failed to pay.
In order to claim damages, Rubin launched an effort to gain custody of Iranian antiquities held in museums at Harvard and other American universities. Rubin argues that because the antiquities may be the property of the Iranian government she has a right to the items as part of the damages.
But Federal Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. has now ruled in favor of the University, writing that the plaintiffs did not show enough evidence to back their claim that the Persian antiques collection at the Peabody Museum legally belonged to the government of Iran.
“As a general matter, establishing that a particular item was unlawfully exported or removed from Iran is not equivalent to showing that it now should be regarded as property of Iran subject to levy and execution,” O’Toole wrote.
“And as a particular matter, the plaintiffs simply are unable to establish that any item in the possession of the Museums, whether from Persepolis or elsewhere, is rightly considered to be the property of Iran.”
In her suit, Rubin sought to claim a set of six limestone relief fragments that were recovered from the city of Persepolis in ancient Persia.
“We feel that cultural items should be appreciated by everybody. They shouldn’t be seized. There’s a need for justice and this is not the way to justice,” Jamal D. Abdi, policy director for the National Iranian American Council said.
Abdi said he was encouraged by the ruling, which he said was an important part of preserving the Iranian cultural heritage.
“They’d [the relics] be taken out of the museums. The [defense] lawyer suggested they’d be auctioned on Ebay,” Abdi said.
“Another strategy would be “destroying them to make the remaining relics more valuable. They’d be commercial items, or be destroyed—treated like commercial commodities.”
Harvard is not the only university facing a suit of this nature.
Rubin has sued several American universities that house Persian artifacts, including the University of Chicago, which has an extensive collection of Persian clay tablets.
In March the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed a lower court decision that would have handed over the artifacts to Rubin, but the case may continue on appeal.
Rubin’s legal effort has posed a significant risk to university collections, and Thursday’s ruling is an encouraging sign for those who wish to protect antiques on display at university museums.