December 19, 2014
An audacious bid by the victims of a Hamas terrorist attack in Israel to seize Iranian antiquities held in Chicago museums has been tossed out by a federal judge.
Nine victims hurt in the 1997 bombing of a Jerusalem mall fought for a decade in the Chicago courts to force the Field Museum and the University of Chicago to turn over the priceless relics to punish Iran for funding Hamas.
But late Thursday, U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman ruled that though he recognized “the tragic circumstances that gave rise” to the lawsuit, “the law cited by plaintiffs does not offer the remedy they seek.”
The victims were hurt when three Hamas suicide bombers set off bombs packed with nails, screws and broken glass at the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in Jerusalem. Five bystanders were killed and 192 were wounded.
When Iran failed to show up in court in Washington, D.C., in 2003 to defend itself against a lawsuit alleging it backed the bombers, a federal judge awarded the victims a default judgment of $412 million.
Iran didn’t pay up, so the victims’ attorney, David Strachman, filed suit in Chicago, arguing Persian antiquities held by the Field Museum and the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute were Iranian government property and should be turned over to help settle the fine.
The University of Chicago’s Persepolis collection of clay tablets, as well as clay seal impressions from the university’s Chogha Mish collection, were both loaned to it by the National Museum of Iran for study, long before Iran’s Islamic Revolution.
Strachman also argued that the Field Museum’s Herzfeld collection of prehistoric artifacts was taken from Iran in the early 20th century without Iranian permission.
But in a 23-page ruling, Gettleman said the victims’ “claim that the (Oriental) Institute is controlled by Iran are ... unconvincing,” meaning the university doesn’t have to turn over its collection.
Since Iran has never claimed it owns the Field Museum’s collection, the Herzfeld collection will also remain in Chicago, the judge ruled.
Reacting to the ruling, Strachman, who has made similar attempts to seize Iranian artifacts in other jurisdictions, said he was “very disappointed” that Iran was being allowed to be a “scofflaw.”
He blamed the U.S. government, which intervened in the case on behalf of the museums, for “thwarting” the victims’ suit.
“The State Department argued in court on behalf of Iran,” he said.
But lawyers for the Field Museum said they did not believe the government’s intervention was critical, and that a ruling in favor of the victims would have set a dangerous precedent for other museums.
Though attorney William Ferranti said the museum was “very sympathetic” to the suffering of the victims, he added, “I’m not sure that going after cultural institutions like this is the answer.”