The Artifact Wars: Nations Battle Over Bits of History

Just who holds the deeds to ancient artifacts—the institutes that house them or the countries they came from? Museums might want to bolt their collections to the floor, if a slew of 2006 court decisions are any indication [Quiz].

In one example, the Republic of Iran just entered the fray as an unlikely ally alongside the University of Chicago in the latest landmark artifact case, disputing the ownership of 2,500-year-old Persian tablets an Illinois judge had recently ordered to be seized from the university's museum and auctioned off for profit.

Iran is now trying to block the auction, meant to help pay for damages owed by the country to American victims of a 1997 suicide bombing in Israel, according to court documents. An attorney in that case maintained the tablets should be liquidated as assets of the Republic of Iran in the United States, despite their scholarly value.

"A lawyer representing Iran is in court arguing that the tablets belong to them," said William Harms, a spokesperson for the University of Chicago, which has always maintained that the tablets are the cultural property of Iran. 

The University of Chicago has held the tablets on permanent loan since their discovery in the 1930s. When they were found, "it made sense at the time to bring the tablets here," Harms told LiveScience, noting that the few scholars who could read the script marked on them were located in Chicago.

With the potential auction of the tablets inciting Iran to getthem back within its own borders, the University of Chicago stands to lose the artifacts regardless of the outcome.

Flurry of debates

The Iran controversy is just one of a recent flurry of debates over cultural property that has museums trying to untangle the complicated webs of how their collections were procured.

Italy and Greece have been especially vehement about reacquiring lost heritage they say was taken across their borders illegally.

On July 10, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles agreed to return to Greece two objects the Hellenic Republic Ministry of Culture claimed were likely stolen after their excavation and sold privately. After reviewing the route the antiquities took in getting there, the museum felt it was appropriate that the objects be given back, it said in a statement.

New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed to a similar deal in February, announcing the return of six objects to Italy.

"This is the appropriate solution to a complex problem, which redresses past improprieties in the acquisitions process," said museum director Philippe de Montebello in a press release.

'Criminal and sleazy'

Because they often buy artifacts from private collections, museums are far from immune to the trafficking of goods looted from archaeological sites, says Ellen Herscher of the American Association of Museums.

"As long as the object comes to you from some wealthy collector who is very respectable and drives a nice car, it's easy to dissociate and think, Oh, here's this object that needs a home," Herscher wrote in a recent edition of the journal Archaeology. "And you can just ignore the whole chain of events that goes back to really criminal and sleazy kinds of activities. There's a denial of the fact that by taking or buying that object, you're stimulating the looting of sites."

One fight Greece likely won't win anytime soon is its dispute with London over the Elgin Marbles—chunks from the facade of the Parthenon in Athens which Greece claims were stolen in the early 1800s. Officials there have been calling for their return from the British Museum for more than a century, but the museum maintains the artifacts were obtained lawfully and is adamant about keeping them in London.