Artifacts, Assets, & The Limits of Monetization

In a much awaited decision,  US District Judge Robert Gettleman last week provided a summary judgment on a case that threatened to force the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum to sell vast collections of artifacts from the territory of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  The judgment represents a victory for archaeological institutions anxious that works of heritage might be monetized to settle accounts for unrelated political action.

In September 1997, Hamas carried out a triple suicide bombing in Jerusalem that killed 5 and injured 200 others.  Nine Americans sued in US Court for damages under a 1990s law that allows American victims of terrorism to seek restitution in U.S. courts if a foreign government was seen to be complicit.  Iran, a patron of Hamas, was explicitly targeted.  In 2003, the plaintiffs received a $71.5 million uncontested judgment against Iran.

But following the Iranian Revolution and succeeding decades of hostile relations, Iran had few assets vulnerable to seizure in the US since President Reagan unblocked Iranian assets that President Carter had frozen.  Unless artifacts held on loan from Iran in US museums could be held to be fungible assets.  The victims then sued the Oriental Institute and Field Museum, demanding that they sell thousands of tablets, seals, and other artifacts that Iran had loaned to the Institutions for study and conservation beginning in the 1930s.

As I read the judgment, the decision seems to turn primarily (though not exclusively) on one key issue.  The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act declares all property of a foreign state in the US to be immune from attachment with a couple of exceptions.  One exception is for assets used for commercial activity.  Are artifacts in a museum assets used for commercial activity?  Both the OI and the Field Museum clearly engage in commercial activity, though that is not their reason for being.  But, as the Judge found, their commercial activity is not Iran’s commercial activity.  The artifacts are not in the US in order for Iran to conduct commercial activity with them.

The plaintiffs argued that the OI and Field were effectively Iran’s commercial agents, equating the OI’s ongoing commitment to document and return the objects as evidence of a fiduciary relationship.  But as Judge Gettleman pointed out, Iran does not control the OI nor is the purpose of the relationship a commercial one.

Certainly the protection of the integrity of an important archaeological collection is the most obvious good to come of last week’s judgment.  But perhaps the more significant outcome is to preserve a relationship to things from rampant monetarization.  The tyranny of economics has led to the commodification of our ties to everything, with much noted ill effects.  What aspect of our material lives is not now susceptible to reduction to a financial cost?  But this is historically a very unusual, if not deeply pathological, way of thinking about the things that we make, share, use, and discard.  Our ties to things, whether artifacts or other, are far more densely complex.  It is heartening that the US District Court has effectively carved out a legal space where economics must not tread, where value is not defined by monetarization.  And perhaps this judgement opens opportunities to expand this space so that the depth of our engagement with things can be recognized as greater than a game on the Price is Right.

Despite both the pragmatic and more philosophical salutary aspects of Judge Gettleman’s decision, there is one interesting caution as well.  A key element of the judgment was the clear distance between Iran’s objectives and the OI’s.  The Judge noted that the OI was pursuing its own research objectives in studying the materials, with no linkage to Iran’s interest in them.  As the politics of archaeology have come to demand increased responsiveness of archaeologists to the various places where they work and a more collaborative approach to setting research agenda’s, one wonders if archaeological institutions run a legal risk of being understood as agents of foreign states.  As someone deeply committed to collaborative research, I nonetheless would balk at the extension of collaboration to conspiracy.

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