Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On Art! Beyond Babylon...to federal court

(In this installment of IntLawGrrls "On Art!" series on artifacts of transnational culture, guest blogger Judith Weingarten, an archaeologist, returns to the blog with an account of legal issues swirling about a new show at a leading U.S. art museum)

The latest archaeological blockbuster at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C.
The exhibit, which opened a week ago today, runs through March 15, 2009, and is the subject of this New York Times review, is the direct sequel to the Met's 2003 Art of the First Cities, which covered the third millennium B.C. But unlike the 2003 show, which took place as American troops invaded the heartland of ancient Mesopotamia, there is a gaping hole in the new show: 55 pieces from Syria — stone sculptures; frescoes; goldwork, including this stupendous bowl from the ancient city of Ugarit (below left) – were not sent as promised to New York.
In a wall card near the beginning of the show, the Met thanks the Syrian government for its willingness to lend such important objects, and expresses "deep regret that recent legislation in the United States has made it too difficult and risky for the planned loans to proceed." That legislation, an amendment made in January to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, permits private individuals claiming to be victims of state-sponsored terrorism to file liens against property belonging to that state whenever the property is in the United States. Property loaned to museums may fall within the ambit of this amendment.
This is the almost inevitable sequel to the legal battle over the Persepolis tablets.

What are the Persepolis Fortification Tablets?
In size and durability, the Achaemenid Persian Empire had no equal before the creation of the Roman Empire and, like the Roman Empire, it created an area of political, economic, and cultural connections of an unprecedented scale. The Great King Darius I (522–486 B.C.) built
an imperial residence complex at Persepolis – today, Iran. This empire came to a brutal end when Alexander the Great conquered, looted, and burned the city in 330/329 B.C. Even in ruins, the massive platform, lofty columns, sculptured walls, and staircases were imposing, and for many centuries they attracted visitors.
But it was not until 1931 that The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago began to excavate what lay beneath these standing ruins. One entirely surprising discovery was a large group of 15,000 to 30,000 or more cuneiform clay tablets. Together, these tablets constituted proof that behind the splendid palaces and sculptured façades that were the setting for the court of the Great Kings stood an administrative apparatus that controlled movements of food, animals, and labor in the region around the palaces, relying on an information system that was as complex and sophisticated as any in the ancient world.
Until their discovery, the main written sources for the Persian Empire were those written by foreigners — notably the Hebrew Bible and Greek sources such as Herodotus and historians of Alexander’s campaigns. These accounts, quite naturally, gave a partial and biased picture of the
Persian Empire.
The Persepolis tablets thus have a very deep modern significance as irreplaceable items of cultural heritage for the people of Iran. Persepolis and the Persian Empire are central symbols of their cultural identity.
It was therefore an extraordinary act of trust and international scholarly cooperation for when the Iranian government to allow the tablets to be brought to the Oriental Institute in 1936 on a long-term loan for purposes of conservation, translation and analysis. The massive quantity and fragile physical condition, coupled with the challenges of reading the texts. have made their analysis and publication a difficult, long-term project. Already it has extended for seventy years, and it is still far from completion. (Details on the tablet archive project are here.)

Return of the Texts
From the time of the tablets’ first arrival in Chicago, researchers at the Oriental Institute were keenly aware of the texts’ importance as the cultural heritage of the Iranian people, and of their scholarly responsibility not only to translate the tablets but also to ensure their return as loan objects back to Iran once analysis and recording were complete. The most recent return of loaned tablets, in 2004, received extensive in the international media. It therefore came as a complete shock when, several months later, the Oriental Institute was served with legal
documents demanding that it surrender the Persepolis tablets to satisfy the legal claims for damages in a lawsuit by victims of a Hamas bombing attack in Israel.
(Details on the litigaton may be found here and here and here.)
The Oriental Institute found itself caught in the middle of a complex legal drama that began in Jerusalem in 1997 and is now playing out in a federal courthouse in Chicago. In 1997, a group of American tourists fell victim to a bombing attack in Jerusalem. The Palestinian organization Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombing. The surviving victims and the families of those who died argued that the Islamic Republic of Iran had funded Hamas and should therefore be held accountable to pay compensation. When the case was heard in federal court in Rhode Island, representatives of the state of Iran did not appear to contest the case. As a result, a default judgment was entered against Iran for over $400 million in damages. Because the tablets are on loan from Iran to the Oriental Institute, the plaintiffs are attempting to appropriate and sell them to satisfy the claim for damages. The Oriental Institute and the University of Chicago maintain that the law does not allow for the seizure of cultural heritage as compensation.

Whose tablets are these anyway?
The tablets are not commercial assets like oil wells, tankers, or houses. Instead, these types of culturally unique and important materials fall within a special protected category and are not subject to seizure. This trove of tablets has never been a commercial item to be bought or sold. The tablets have never been a source of profit either to Iran or to the Oriental Institute. They are non-commercial items of cultural heritage, every bit as unique and important as the original document of the Constitution of the United States. (Imagine if a future Iraqi government were to put a lien on that document.) The stakes are enormous. If the lawsuit prevails, this would do irrevocable harm to scholarly cooperation and cultural exchanges throughout the world.
That is already starting to happen. The Syrian government had offered to lend the Met invaluable parts of their cultural heritage: many of these objects that had never left the country before. Of American institutions, only the Met has the resources to pull off such a project, which depends as much on personal contacts as on cash.
That little card on the wall doesn’t say it all.
The Met submitted applications for immunity from seizure for all the borrowed foreign works — including pieces from Armenia, Georgia, Greece, Lebanon and Turkey, as well as Syria — but finally decided that the FSIA amendment jeopardized the Syrian loans. Though not on display, the 55 Syrian objects are in the catalog. There you can see how important a role they played in the internationalist narrative conceived by Joan Aruz (right), the curator in charge of the Met’s department of ancient Near Eastern art.


1 comment:

Derek Fincham said...

Great summary, and very good connection with the Persian tablets case. I think you've made some nice points, I've linked to them here:

http://illicit-cultural-property.blogspot.com/2008/11/terrorism-and-antiquities.html