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Auctioning Ancient Iranian Artifacts: Implications for US Cultural Policy

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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.