Supreme Court to Hear Case Surrounding Seizure of Iranian Artifacts from Oriental Institute

Terror victims hope to seize the artifacts, lent to the Institute by Iran decades ago, as compensation.

By Madeleine Moore

The University’s Oriental Institute (OI) is involved in an ongoing Supreme Court case in which American terrorist victims are seeking compensation from the Iranian government through seizing Iranian artifacts from the OI and the Field Museum.

In September 1997, three suicide bombers associated with the Palestinian terrorist group, Hamas, carried out an attack on a shopping mall in Jerusalem. Among those affected were eight United States citizens, who later filed a civil action case in a U.S. court against the government of Iran and its involvement in providing financial support to the bombers.

A federal judge in Washington, D.C. awarded the plaintiffs $71.5 million in damages, which the government of Iran refused to pay.

The plaintiffs have since filed several lawsuits demanding Iranian artifacts and antiquities held by the University as compensation, and have also attempted to seize artifacts from the Field Museum in Chicago and other museums in Massachusetts and Michigan.

The Supreme Court hearing will be the fourth time the case has gone to court since the plaintiffs were awarded $71.5 million in 2003. The University appealed the decision and since then has won subsequent trials in 2011 and 2014.

The plaintiffs appealed the 2014 ruling, and it was chosen by the U.S. Supreme Court for review on June 27. The Court is scheduled to hear the case on December 4.

If the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, it could set the precedent that a foreign government is subject to the terrorism exception of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) and the property of a foreign government may be attached to a civil judgement, despite the location of the property or current ownership.

This case could allow the Supreme Court to define what assets can be seized from a state accused of engaging in or supporting terrorism, even when the assets are held or owned by a separate entity unaffiliated with the foreign state.

The plaintiffs have targeted three collections of ancient Persian artifacts held by the OI and the Field Museum of Natural History in downtown Chicago.

The artifacts include prehistoric pottery, ornaments, and tablets with Elamite writing, the oldest known writing system from Iran.

Both the OI and the Field Museum have stated that they own the items, but the plaintiffs maintain that Iran does.

The case is centered on the FSIA, which places limits on the circumstances in which foreign entities may be sued in U.S. courts. Typically, foreign states are immune from lawsuits or property seizure due to this act.

However, the plaintiffs have argued that FSIA contains a terrorism exception, which would allow them to request the artifacts as a means of compensation.

This case has gone to the Seventh Circuit court, stating that there was not an exception included in the act that pertained to the case. This decision created a split with the Ninth Circuit court, which ruled in the plaintiff’s favor.

The University and Iran have challenged the plaintiffs based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in First National City Bank v. Banco Para El Comercio Exterior de Cuba (Bancec). This case created the “Bancec doctrine,” which states that a case against a foreign state may not be executed on the property of a separate entity.

According to the University, since it owns the Iranian artifacts and is a separate entity from the government of Iran, the plaintiffs may not seize the artifacts to their case.

The OI could not be reached for comment by press time.