Oriental Institute wins lawsuit, keeps Iranian tablets

In the third court ruling in a 17-year dispute, court rules Oriental Institute can keep Iranian tablets.

Photo: Courtesy of the University of Chicago
Pictured: one of several Achaemenid Tablets owned by the Oriental Institute and discovered during an excavation in the 1930s.

In late March, the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute won the right to keep a collection of Iranian tablets in a court case that marked the latest chapter of a 17 year–long dispute.

The conflict over the tablets originated in 1997 when a shopping mall in Jerusalem was the target of a Hamas-led terrorist attack. A group of nine American survivors filed successfully in U.S. courts for over $300 million for damages against the Republic of Iran, which has funded Hamas periodically. Iran refused to pay the damages, and the plaintiffs have since tried to get their compensation elsewhere, including by claiming a right to a collection on loan from Iran at the Oriental Institute. The same group has also unsuccessfully attempted to seize Iranian artifacts from the Field Museum and from museums in Massachusetts and Michigan.

The case has now gone to court a total of three times. In 2003, the plaintiffs won the case, but the University appealed and has won twice since then, both in 2011 and now in 2014. According to Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute, the courts shifted in favor of the defense after the fact-finding portion of the process ended and the court began to focus on legal analysis.

“While it’s a tragedy what happened to the victims of this bombing in Jerusalem, [the] specific remedy that the plaintiff is trying to get is not the proper pathway to justice,” Stein said.

According to Stein, the plaintiff’s case was rejected because the Oriental Institute’s collection is classified as noncommercial property and therefore not subject to seizure.

It is unknown whether the victims of the bombing will appeal the decision again, but the Institute is preparing for further litigation. “I will be surprised if there isn’t an appeal to this judgment.… I’m not ready to breathe a sigh of relief yet,” said Matthew Stolper, professor of Assyriology at the Institute, who is involved in heading the cataloging and study of the tablets.

The collection is currently not on display but is being studied by researchers. Stolper and a team of about one hundred professors, post-doctoral students, and students have been working on the Persepolis Fortification Archive Project, which is a project to digitize the entire collection of tablets and put the catalog up on the Internet for worldwide access. According to Stolper, the Institute hopes to digitize approximately two-thirds of the collection by the end of the year.

However, a thorough record and catalogue of the collection would require a much longer period of time to complete, and Stolper would like for the Oriental Institute to have the artifacts for as long as possible.

The official terms of the loan with Iran are flexible and allow the Oriental Institute to keep the collection as long as they decide is necessary. The loan only requires that the artifacts be returned “gradually and soon.”

“We return them when we are done recording, analyzing and publishing them,” said Stolper.

University spokesperson Steve Koppes wrote in an e-mail that the University will continue to support the Oriental Institute.

“The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago is committed to preserving and protecting a collection of Persian artifacts on loan from the Iranian government.…We welcome the court’s ruling and will continue our efforts to preserve and protect this cultural heritage,” Koppes wrote.

  • Katherine Prongos

    Entitlement cuts both ways…i.e., why this sort of lawsuit won’t necessarily get you on Netanyahu’s A-list.

    • Daveyo

      Really, what the courts have down is awarded the victims 300 million but are saying at the same time you have to find the way to get the 300 million yourself cause Iran is not going to pay you the award.

      So they try to claim the artifacts for compensation, yet the courts then turn right around and renege on the award. Basically the system sucks.

      So, eventually one of these times they will get their money one way or another, and I hope they do and then once they have it, get out of USA and hide someplace without a trail to find them.

      It will be very tough because you are up against Islamic Muslims who would be very happy to instantly put you under their Sharia law and put you 6 feet under.

      So pray and hope that Israel exacts justice perhaps on your behalf, to Iran and teaches them Yeshua’s lesson.

  • Farhad


    You should probably get your facts straight. The tablets don’t have anything to do with muslims, they document the history and heritage of Zoroastrians that occupied what is now modern day Iran. I also just happen to be Zoroastrian myself. We have no connection to Shia Muslims of Iran other than the fact that their ancestors slaughtered us, forced us to convert and drove us into international exile (this might sound familiar?).

    That being said, for all of their faults, the Irani Authorities have spent BILLIONS on preserving pre-islamic heritage of Iran, which includes tablets like this. Perhaps they are not as unkind to their pre-Islamic history as you are making it out to be.

  • Michael Abbott

    I will be in Pakistan next year as art of my p/g research..Does this mean if I get injured by a drone or by the Pakistan security forces I have a claim against the US Gvmt..I must check what US art exhibitions are coming to London. I have a space or two on my wall that need filling..