Heritage taken hostage

Auctioning ancient Iranian artifacts for crimes against Israelis


Heritage taken hostage
by Touraj Daryaee

A bombing in Jerusalem. A troubled foreign country tried in absentia in U.S. courts. Priceless archeological artifacts threatened. It sounds like it could be the plot of Dan Brown's next novel, but this time the situation is a real one that could have tragic consequences for America's cultural policies and standing in the world community.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has been sued successfully by the victims of an attack on Israel and awarded, on paper, some 375 million dollars. To pay for this judgment, the next step might be to seize Iranian national assets, but nowhere near that amount is available inside the U.S. Instead, the plaintiff's lawyers have proposed that ancient Iranian art treasures, currently housed in American museums, be confiscated and auctioned off. The institutions threatened by this include the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Harvard University, the University of Michigan Museum of Art, and the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

This issue has very important implications for the United States. First of all, one can imagine how much dislike, distrust, and suspicion would be incurred by a Western power dragging another culture's ancient heritage to the auction block. America's museums are national institutions that are often trusted to hold and display the cultural materials of other societies around the world. They are not bank accounts or slush funds to be raided whenever money is needed.

Secondly, and more importantly, if Iranian artifacts are successfully seized, it will set a precedent that will open a floodgate of claims to other cultural treasures in the US. American museums hold thousands of objects from countries in the Middle East and other troubled spots in the world. Many of these are on loan from their home countries, brought here for a time so that they may educate and inform American citizens. If it is established that such artifacts can be taken and sold, what country would risk lending its invaluable antiquities to any U.S. museum? None. The hesitation of every foreign country and museum around the world to lend art and artifacts to U.S. museums will cripple exhibits in the United States and contribute to the decline in the cultural awareness of Americans and our understanding of the meaning of cultural diversity.

One group of the endangered Iranian artifacts that has come in the news more often than others is a collection of clay tablets that was discovered in the 1930s at Persepolis, the great palace of the ancient Persian Empire. During the excavations at Persepolis, a team of archaeologists from the University of Chicago discovered more than 30,000 inscribed tablets. Much of this imperial archive was then lent by the Iranian government at that time to the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.

What these tablets tell us is the economic, social and religious history of the ancient Achaemenid Persian Empire (550-330 BCE) and the larger Near Eastern region in the fifth century BCE. For centuries, historians of the ancient world have viewed Persian culture through the prism of Greek historical writing. However, the Greeks usually treated the Persians with prejudice and thus left a relatively warped view of the Persian Empire. Furthermore, the Greeks were mainly concerned with the court and with the kings and queens of the empire, and not with the lives of ordinary people, so we have only a view from the very top. These tablets provide exactly the missing part of social history of the region. For example, they provide information on Persian landholding women, the lives of working women and men in the Near East, including the amount the government paid its pregnant female workers, and the religious tolerance and exchange of ideas over a wide area, from modern day Israel to Afghanistan.
These tablets only make sense if they are studied as a group and not dispersed throughout the world in the hand of dealers and private collectors. It is a rare archive from antiquity, and so it should remain as such to be studied and understood. It would be a shame to have had in the twenty-first century a unique source for understanding the ancient Persians that got arbitrarily partitioned and dispersed, forcing us to remain in the dark for another 2,500 years about the social and cultural history of these people and the region.

As citizens of a society which promotes the understanding and accepting of diversity here and for the world, we must not let this happen. Our people need to be able to go to museums and see these objects to understand the antiquity, beauty, and diversity of the world in which they live in. The auctioning ancient artifacts would be a great mistake. If the current administration allows their sale to private dealers and collectors, the cost, in terms of the destruction of evidence for the study of the history of humanity, as well as with regard to America's reputation, is incalculable.

Touraj Daryaee, Associate Director, Center for Persian Studies at the University of California, Irvine. This commentary was first published in HuffingtonPost.com.


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Veiled Prophet of Khorasan

This is what gives Israelies a bad name

by Veiled Prophet of Khorasan on


It is percisely this kind of asinine behavior that gives Israel a bad name. People like myself who are normally understanding of Israel are pushed into becoming critics. People who are already critical become justifiably more so.

Iranians need to make it clear that there will be repercussions. That if this so called auction goes on then there will be no chance of reconciliation with US or Israel no matter what government takes over. Not until all the artifacts are returned along with apologies from both US and Israel. They would also be required to pay reparations to Iran for their obnoxious and racist actions.

Regardless ofc the outcome Iran should never again trust the US with its national treasure. One would have to be crazy to send anything of national value to a US museum for any reason. Who knows what kind of BS they will cook up next to steal one's treasure.

Just the fact that the question has come up is enough reason to permanently mistrust US with Iranian treasure.

Us is simply too much controlled by Israeli interests to be impartial. If the US "justice" system wants to act as paid thugs for Israel then they should be ready to face the lack of credibility that results.

What goes around comes around; in particular this asinine action by US. In fact for starters US should pay Iran for the loss of the Iranian Jetliner deliberately shot down. Next is the overthrow of Mossadegh. Not to mention forcing us to give up Bahrain. All the damages would have to be determined in Iranian courts with no chance of appeal to non Iranian judicial systems. How about a taste or their own medicine. 


The Perspolis Artifacts Defense Fund

by MM on

Thanks for posting this important issue in Iranian.com

Since 2006, NIAC (The National Iranian American Counsel) and a group of concerned attorneys have been in a legal battle to protect these artifacts from lawsuits.  The consequences of a legal loss will be disastrous and this case will most likely go all the way to the Supreme Court of the USA.  NIAC has fundraiser events with Prof. Matt Stolper, the caretaker of the tablets in Chicago, in various cities in the USA.  Over $110,000 was collected towards the legal defense fund for the Perspolis artifacts in the NY event.  However, legal battles are expensive, so please participate in these fundraisers and contribute.  For immediate action towards this fund, NIAC has established a site //www.niacouncil.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1362&Itemid=59 for instant tax-deductable contributions.  

There is also a political factor to let the Executive and the Legislative branches know how you see things.  For example, there is a writing campaign to President Obama at  //capwiz.com/niacouncil/issues/alert/?alertid=12930356&type=ML or you can find your representatives on the hill //capwiz.com/niacouncil/dbq/officials/ and write to them directly to prevent this calamity.  The political result of your actions may be a protective bill from the congress, supported by the President that will resolve all this legal nonesense.  Thanks again.


Update on the tablets

by OmidKarimi on

The prof. trying to save these tablets has a blog regarding the issue: //persepolistablets.blogspot.com/


Discuss, chat and post your opinions about Iran on my new forum: www.IranBebin.com



Its childish gheda bazi with no legal basis

by OmidKarimi on

My uncle died in the Iraq-iran war when Saddams army bombed their barracks with shells made in the US and with US intelligence/satellite imagery. Thus, as a family member, victim to obvious state terrorism as the war was illegal, i claim the right to auction off the decleration of rights or george washingtons uniform to the nearest bidder to satisfy my demand of several millions of dollars.

When the US shot down an Iranian airliner, family members were given a couple of thousand dollars each, no apology and the captain of the ship that shot it down recieved a medal!

Doesnt seem logical? Because there is none, this is a pure example of US racism against Iran, pure and simple. We are all terrorist loving sub humans for them. our culture, heritage everything is up for grabs.

This is why one should differentiate between fighting for democracy in Iran, and giving ass to foreign powers using the movement for their own good.


Btw, if you are loaded, the professor in charge of the collection at the museum is working 24/7 to document all of the tablets before they are auctioned, he needs funds to finish the project fast enough. Instead of paying for space travels etc, maybe this might be a good donation target? The writings on the tablets are far more worth thant he tablets themselves.

Further, I can imagine writing letters to the families of those claiming these artifacts would help. They must know what a  HUGE insult it is for us who had nothing to do with those bombings. 


Discuss, chat and post your opinions about Iran on my new forum: www.IranBebin.com



I had heard about this

by Cost-of-Progress on

but was unaware of the details.

Thank you for raising this important issue here. I will make it a point to disseminate this information for broader exposure and awareness.

I hope that there are key people out there that can appreciate the gravity of this situation and are able to prevent it from taking place.

These are truly shameful and dark times in our great nation's history.