Federal Appeals Court Rules in Favor of Harvard Retaining its Artifacts
In a decision handed down Feb. 27, a federal appeals court held up a prior decision that a group of terrorism victims who won a judgment against Iran will not be allowed to claim Iranian artifacts in Harvard’s art museums as compensation for damages owed to them.
According to the verdict, the plaintiffs won a default judgment in 2003, awarding them $71.5 million in monetary compensation from the government of Iran due to its involvement in a 1997 bombing in Jerusalem. When the Iranian government refused to pay damages to the plaintiffs, the plaintiffs instead attempted to lay claim to the artifacts in question, which include a large array of ancient Persian antiquities in the Harvard Arthur M. Sackler Museum, the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
The plaintiffs originally lost the suit in 2011 when a federal district court judge ruled that the artifacts could not be taken from Harvard as compensation.
The Crimson contacted lawyers representing Harvard and Peabody Museum administrators with knowledge of the suit, all of whom either declined to or were unavailable to comment on the story.
According to the verdict, the plaintiffs have sought the artifacts on the basis that they could be considered property of Iran due to their origins, enabling them to use the assets to satisfy their claims against the Iranian government.
In the 2011 verdict, Federal Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. wrote that “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.”
The decision published last week confirmed this ruling. “While we are mindful of the incident that gave rise to the judgment,” the panel of three federal appeals court judges wrote, “the general rule is that foreign sovereign property in the United States is immune from attachment and execution.”
The disputes over ownership largely centered on interpretation of a 1930 Iranian law regarding the excavation of antiquities within the country’s borders. According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard asserted that the law did not automatically give the Iranian government ownership over excavated items, that the law was unenforceable outside of Iran, and that many of the artifacts were excavated before 1930.
Last week’s ruling denying the plaintiffs ownership of the artifacts upheld a 2011 ruling by a lower court that enabled the University of Chicago to retain possession of its share of the artifacts in question.
According to the Chronicle, had the rulings gone the other way, a precedent may have been set in American foreign policy allowing outside entities to seize foreign exhibitions on loan to American museums. This could have made foreign countries more reluctant to share exhibitions abroad.