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Paying with the Past

Lawyers for victims of two 20th-century terrorist bombings are trying to force the sale of a cache of 2,500-year-old Persian tablets currently on loan to Chicago’s Oriental Institute.

(page 6 of 7)

David Strachman

Citing ongoing litigation, David Strachman declined to be interviewed for this article. But at a May hearing on whether to allow the Peterson plaintiffs into the case, he evidently could not contain himself. Having a second group in the case, he told the Sun-Times, was “terrorism victims attacking other victims,” and it was “unseemly for lawyers for one group of victims to undermine collection actions of other victims.” He went even farther in a later motion, where he denounced the Peterson suit as “utterly frivolous.”

David Cook, the Peterson lawyer, is a collections attorney from San Francisco whose Web site is squeezebloodfromturnip.com. Cook started his legal career liquidating businesses and selling grocery stores, and has spent the last decade pursuing O. J. Simpson on behalf of the family of Ron Goldman, the man who was killed in June 1994 along with Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole. “The Rubin attorneys think I’m a plain old party crasher, that I’m trying to cut in line,” Cook said. “But I don’t think there is a line. My job is to collect for my clients.”

In June, he filed a motion seeking to dismiss the Rubin suit on a technicality (failing to serve Iran with a mailing notice) and take ownership of the archive away from Iran, and calling for a blue-ribbon panel—he suggests that Louis Freeh, the former director of the FBI, be a member—to oversee the sale of the tablets to a museum or university after the Oriental Institute completes its research. Judge Manning quickly denied the motion, but Cook has filed for appeal before the Seventh Circuit and remains hopeful about such an approach.

“It’s a winner,” he said. “Everyone walks away with exactly what they want. We get some dough, the University of Chicago gets to continue its studies, and we unwind the Gordian knot of how to accommodate the scholarly community versus the rights of judgment creditors to get paid.”

It’s not a vision that the University of Chicago shares. “The terrorist acts that led to these judgments against Iran are reprehensible,” said Matt Allison, a partner at Baker & McKenzie, who is acting as outside counsel for the university in this matter. “But the University of Chicago believes these antiquities are immune from attachment, and it will continue to resist the efforts of both the Rubin and the Peterson plaintiffs to seize them.”

Throughout the case, David Strachman has been unwavering in his insistence that the tablets are assets, just like dollar bills or property deeds, and do not deserve any special treatment. “The issue is not really the antiquities,” he told National Public Radio. “This is an issue of, you know, five young people who were in a horrible attack at the prime of their life, as teenagers basically.”

Patty Gerstenblith, director of the Center for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law at DePaul University’s College of Law, sees it differently. “Even with a great deal of sympathy for the victims of both incidents,” she said, “these artifacts aren’t the kind of things that should be sold to satisfy the judgments these claimants have.”

She explained that ordinarily plaintiffs in a civil suit are limited by the ownership interests of the defendant—and because current Iranian law would not permit Iran to sell the tablets, the Rubin and Peterson plaintiffs should be under the same restrictions. But her larger point was that the real value of the tablets is not in the objects themselves but in the cumulative information they provide when looked at together. “If they’re put on the market,” she said, “they’d actually lose their value because they’d be split up and end up on somebody’s mantelpiece instead of being studied.”

If Rubin and Peterson do succeed, she added, it would be the first time that a U.S. court had seized culturally significant items not to return them to their original owner but to pay off a debt of the owner. “We want to encourage international loans,” she said, “but this would discourage that because it would make cultural objects on loan too vulnerable to a claim someone has against another country.”

It would also give the United States a black eye in much of the world, according to Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute. “Selling off the cultural heritage of another country would make the U.S. look like barbarians,” he said. “These victims have every right to some sort of justice, but this isn’t the way. This is the justice of a pound of flesh, and that’s not justice at all.”

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Photograph: AP Photo/Victoria Arocho



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