Persian Artifacts Loaned to the U.S. in the 1930s Returned to Iran after Legal Dispute

The National Museum of Iran received – and now displays – ancient clay tablets, which recently arrived from the United States. The ancient Persian artifacts are part of the “Persepolis Collection,” previously borrowed by the United States. Iran’s Minister of Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Ali Asghar Mounesan reported that hundreds of ancient tablets, dating back to the Achaemenid Empire were returned on September 30, 2019. The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago last held the artifacts, where extensive research was conducted on their origins and historical significance.

Mr. Christopher Woods, the head of the Oriental Institute, stated that as a result of their historical research on the artifacts, the world knows more about the organization and institutions in Achaemenid societies of ancient Persia. These tablets were excavated from the site of Persepolis, the capital of what was once a politically and culturally advanced Achaemenid Empire approximately 2500 years ago. Iran loaned artifacts to the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute more than 80 years ago for research, translation and cataloging, after university archaeologists uncovered them in the 1930s at the site of the ancient city of Persepolis.

This collection was caught in the crossfires of a lengthy legal dispute that lasted over 14 years, and went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. A February 2018 decision came down in favor of a return of the collection to Iran. Rubin v. Islamic Republic of Iran showcased a stunning instance of legal consensus between the governments of the United States and Iran. The unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that clay tablets are exempt from seizure under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The U.S. administration at the time expressed that a ruling to seize the artifacts could significantly disturb the observance of international reciprocity for the exchange of historical antiques.     

Mr. Woods and Mr. Mohammad Reza Kargar, a director of museums in Iran, both hope that the remainder of the collection still in the United States, which has been held up by bureaucratic delays due in part to the reimposition of U.S. sanctions, shall be returned to Iran in the near future. Another 17,000 artifacts from the initial loan remain in the United States. Tourists flock to Iran every year to visit both historical sites and museums to study and witness the stunning remnants of a once expansive and sophisticated Persian empire. 

by Mohsen Zarkesh

About the author: USIRCC