Federal appeals court rules Harvard, MFA don’t have to turn over antiquities in Iran lawsuit

A federal appeals court in Boston has ruled that Harvard University and the Museum of Fine Arts don’t have to turn over thousands of antiquities to a group of US citizens seeking damages from Iran for a 1997 terrorist attack in Jerusalem.

The First US Circuit Court of Appeals said it was “mindful of the incident” that had sparked the victims’ litigation. But the court also said it could not rewrite the law. And it agreed with a lower court that the items didn’t have to be turned over.

In 2003, the plaintiffs, who alleged that Iran had provided material support to the militant group Hamas in the attack that injured them, won a default judgment against Iran in federal court in Washington, D.C., the court said.

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The plaintiffs then came to federal court in Massachusetts seeking approximately 500 objects in Harvard’s possession and about 1,485 objects held by the MFA. The objects came from in or near the current area occupied by Iran and included stone reliefs, sculptures, and archeological specimens, the court said.

The opinion written by a three-judge panel of the court was lengthy and complex. But one key fact highlighted by the judges was that Iran had never tried to claim the artifacts held by the institutions. And the law that would allow seizure of the items essentially required for Iran to have tried to claim ownership.

“The pool of assets available to the plaintiffs does appear to be quite limited, which is certainly lamentable, but we cannot rewrite the statutory or regulatory text,” said the opinion in the case of Jenny Rubin et al v. Islamic Republic of Iran et al and Harvard University et al.