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:: By Amy Braverman Puma

:: Photography by Dan Dry

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Chicago Journal ::

Worth millions...or priceless?

A lawsuit threatens to take ancient Iranian tablets from the Oriental Institute to compensate Hamas terrorist victims.

photo: In his cramped OI office, professor Matthew Stolper examines one of the Persepolis tablets.
In his cramped OI office, professor Matthew Stolper examines one of the Persepolis tablets.

In a small, dark room on the Oriental Institute’s third floor, Matthew Stolper puts thousands of ancient Iranian tablets under the microscope. Studying the unbaked clay artifacts over the course of 25 years, Stolper, the John A. Wilson professor of Near Eastern languages & civilizations, has translated many of the tablets—their slanted lines are mostly Elamite cuneiform. Taken together, the circa-500 bc documents from the ancient capital Persepolis—excavated by OI archaeologist Ernest Herzfeld in 1933—form the “records of one office palace bureaucracy handing out basic foodstuffs,” Stolper says. “Food, wine, grain.” The records follow “people traveling through the region on business from the Mediterranean coast to India: ‘So-and-so gets so much barley and so much beer.’ When you connect them all, you get a complicated network.”

If a group of litigants gets its way, the tablets may be split up and sold at auction, the proceeds compensating survivors of a 1997 Hamas suicide bombing in Jerusalem. Five American survivors and four family members won a 2001 U.S. court case against Iran, which trained and supported the terrorists, and were awarded more than $400 million in damages. Because Iran doesn’t accept U.S. court jurisdiction, the plaintiffs’ lawyer looked elsewhere for assets: American museums holding Iranian artifacts.

While other institutions sued by the plaintiffs—including museums at the University of Michigan, Harvard, and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts—claim that they, and not Iran, own the objects sought, Chicago’s OI has always acknowledged that its Persepolis tablets were on loan from Iran. In fact, the OI has returned about two-thirds of the original collection: 179 tablets in 1948, 37,000 tablets and fragments in 1951, and 300 tablets in 2002—when the plaintiffs’ lawyer may have read news stories about the return and decided to take the University to court.

Iran had disregarded the case, filed in May 2004, until this past June, when U.S. District Judge Blanche M. Manning ruled, on appeal from a magistrate judge’s earlier ruling, that the U of C could not invoke sovereign immunity—a legal doctrine holding that governments cannot be sued—on Iran’s behalf. Iran, the judge decided, would have to claim sovereign immunity itself.

In reporting the ruling, some media outlets implied that the plaintiffs had in effect won the case and the tablets would be auctioned off. Those reports, says U of C associate general counsel Theodore Stamatakos, “ignored the process in place.” After the ruling Iran did send an attorney to a Chicago district court hearing in July, and was given until August 21 to file a brief claiming sovereign immunity. Then both Chicago and the plaintiffs would have September deadlines to respond to Iran. Notes Stamatakos, “There’s a lot more litigation to be done.”

The University is optimistic, he says, that “the law supports our position” that the tablets are “immune from attachment”—the legal term meaning open to seizure. The 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, he notes, stipulates that the property in question “has to be in commercial activity,” and the Persepolis tablets, he says, are not.

The federal government agrees. Although the United States has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since the 1979 hostage crisis, the State Department has twice filed statements of interest, one supporting the University’s right to assert Iran’s immunity and another supporting Chicago’s interpretation of the statute.

The tablets are hardly commercial property, says OI Director Gil Stein. “These are items of cultural heritage,” Stein says, that have “never been bought or sold or used as a source of profit. They’re in a different category from the kinds of things that might be used for compensation.” Although the plaintiffs “have a wildly exaggerated idea of the cash value of these tablets,” Stein believes, the cultural and scholarly value is tremendous. “One of the best sources of information we have about the Persian Empire” because they demonstrate “the voice of the Persians themselves,” he says, the clay pieces are “comparable to the Constitution or the Magna Carta.” Their academic value increases because they were “scientifically excavated”—their origins well-documented—and because of what they reveal as a collection: “the inner workings of the Persian Empire,” Stein says, before Alexander the Great burned Persepolis around 330 BC.

Indeed, Greek ties with Persepolis make  “our understanding of the Persian Empire...central to the development of Western civilization,” Stein says. Some of the names on the tablets match those in Herodotus’s Histories. “It’s very connected to who we are in the West. It’s cultural heritage”—which he defines as “objects that have overwhelming importance for the definition of the cultural identity of a group or country.”

Although the University has “deep sympathy for the victims” of the bombing attack, Stein says, “no one has ever seized items of cultural heritage and sold them for auction. We were entrusted with these priceless objects, and our obligation is to protect them for future generations. It would be a terrible tragedy if after 2,500 years we’d fail in our responsibility to take care of them.” He adds, “The only good that might come out of this case would be to have a clear statute by the U.S. courts on cultural heritage.”

The OI’s case differs from recent litigation against the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty Museum, and Boston’s Museum of Fine Art, where Italy is suing for the return of its own artifacts, claiming they were looted and illegally exported. The Persepolis tablets were “legally excavated,” Stein says, and “brought to the U.S. with full permission from Iran.”

It’s hard to predict how long the case might continue, Stamatakos says. “Now that Iran’s appeared, it’s going to get complicated.” If the suit goes far enough, he plans to have Stolper testify. “For him to explain what these are and why they’re significant,” he says, “is magical.”

For his part, Stolper has stepped up his cataloging and translating, going through box after box, connecting each fragment with another. The collection, he says, gives scholars “a view of literacy, institutional organization, and political organization that you can’t get anywhere else in texts.” If the plaintiffs win the case and the tablets are sold, “for me it would be pretty devastating.  Actual knowledge of the past” would be lost, he says. “The information can’t be separated from the objects.”