Chicago courts refuse Israel suicide bombing victims request for antiquities to be seized from US museums

Iran was gratified by the ruling that a foreign state's property in the US is exempt from such inquiries

A federal appeals court has dismissed a case brought against Iran and two US museums by victims of a terrorist attack. The court found that Iran, as a sovereign nation, was immune from the claim in the US courts.

The case was brought by Jenny Rubin and other victims of a 1997 triple suicide bombing in a Jerusalem mall, which they say was sponsored by Iran. After they won a judgment for $77m against Iran in a federal court in Washington, DC in 2003, based solely on Iran’s failure to appear and defend itself, they sued for compensation in the form of antiquities from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago and Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. They have also sued two Massachusetts museums, the Harvard University Art Museums and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The plaintiffs argue that antiquities in these museums belong to Iran, so could be seized as compensation. The Chicago collections that the plaintiffs wanted to take are the Persepolis and Chogha Mish Collections at the Oriental Institute, and the Herzfeld Collection at the Field Museum. The museums have either argued that the objects are not the property of Iran, or if they are, they cannot be seized under federal laws that bar suits against foreign nations in the US.

A lower court found against Iran in 2003, saying it could be sued for its failure to appear and plead immunity. The appeals court ruling in March overturned that decision stating that under the US Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), a foreign nation need not plead to the court that it is immune from a case; instead immunity is presumed by law. Judge Diane Sykes said that the court should determine a foreign nation’s immunity without requiring it to assert the defence.

The appeals court said that the lower court decision was “seriously flawed” in requiring Iran to actively plead its immunity and also requiring that Iran must give the plaintiffs all the information they sought about Iranian-owned assets in the US. “[A] foreign state’s property in the US is presumed immune from attachment” under the FSIA, Sykes wrote, unless the plaintiffs can establish that an exception applies. One of the purposes of the FSIA’s immunity, Sykes added, “is to shield foreign states” from unwarranted litigation costs and “intrusive inquiries about their US assets”.

A significant number of cases in recent years have turned on the immunity of foreign governments in claims over allegedly stolen art. The Iran ruling, by limiting the amount of information a foreign government must provide about its assets in US courts, may be a boon to foreign sovereigns and those who defend them.

Sykes sent the case back to the lower court for further proceedings, meaning that a trial court will now determine whether Iran is immune from the case. The plaintiffs are alleging that an exception allows Iran to be sued because the case arises out of Iran’s alleged terrorist activities.

The US has filed a statement of interest in the case, urging the court to affirm Iran’s immunity. The plaintiffs continue to pursue their claims against the two Massachusetts museums. Those museums have also asserted Iran’s sovereign immunity.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Iran wins immunity in artefacts case'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 224 May 2011