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Ruins of the apadana, or great hall, dominate the terrace at Persepolis.
Outside academic circles, the Persepolis archive remained largely unknown—a status that changed abruptly and drastically in the spring of 2004. That’s when David Strachman, an attorney representing the victims of the 1997 bombing in Jerusalem, issued a summons demanding that the Oriental Institute hand over the tablets. A divorce lawyer from Rhode Island, Strachman had made a subspecialty of representing victims of terrorist attacks. By bringing the sharp-elbows style of family court into the ordinarily decorous world of international law, he had been able to rack up a $412-million judgment for the plaintiffs in the Jerusalem lawsuit, known as Jenny Rubin et al. v. the Islamic Republic of Iran (Rubin, a New York fashion designer, was wounded in the Jerusalem bombing). But collecting on the judgment had been a problem, for Strachman had trouble finding Iranian bank accounts or real estate that he could seize and sell. When he learned that the Oriental Institute was studying the Persepolis tablets, Strachman saw an untapped Iranian asset sitting right in Chicago, and he pounced.
Since then, Strachman has set his sights on every item of Persian origin at the Oriental Institute and on the much smaller collection of Persian objects at the Field Museum of Natural History—even though none of the artifacts there are on loan. Arguing that they were stolen from excavations or purchased from crooked antiquities dealers, he claims that they still belong to Iran and thus are subject to being sold for his clients’ benefit.
The Oriental Institute and the Field Museum strongly disagree with Strachman. The items under dispute at the Field, said Joe Brennan, the museum’s general counsel, didn’t come from excavations but from bazaars and from the personal collection of Ernst Herzfeld, the director of the Persepolis expedition at the time the tablets were unearthed. “We think we have good clean title,” Brennan said. “We believe that there should be recourse for people who were victims of suicide bombs, but not out of these collections. Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
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Photograph: Courtesy of the Oriental Institute