Justices to Hear Dispute Over Seizing Iran Artifacts

One of the Persian tablets in the Persepolis Collection. (The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago)

The Supreme Court will hear an appeal from survivors of a 1997 terrorist attack who want to seize museum pieces in U.S. collections to help pay a $71.5-million default judgment against Iran.

The justices said Tuesday they will review a lower court ruling that said the U.S. victims of a suicide bombing in Yerushalayim couldn’t go after collections of Persian artifacts at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History and the University of Chicago.

The victims accused Iran of providing training and support to Hamas, which carried out the attack. They won a judgment and sought assets to pay it after Iran refused to pay.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Iran didn’t own some of the collections and said other artifacts were immune under U.S. law.

The artifacts at issue include thousands of Persian tablets known as the Persepolis Collection that are more than 2,000 years old. They are owned by Iran, but have been on long-term loan to the University of Chicago since 1937 for research, translation and cataloging.

The victims say they have a right to pursue the collection under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. They say the law allows victims of terrorism to attach any assets of foreign state sponsors of terrorism regardless of whether they are connected to commercial activity in the U.S.

Iran argues that the appellate court was correct in determining that the collection is immune.

Other museums have been watching the long-running legal battle closely, fearing that their own collections could be at risk if courts allow the Persian artifacts to be seized.

The case will be argued when the Supreme Court begins its new term in the fall.

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