Sep 11, 2007

Persepolis Fragment on Sale


This Persepolis relief fragment owned by Denyse Berend will be up for sale at a Christie's auction on October 25th. Iran temporarily blocked the last auction in an unsuccessful bid to reclaim the fragment. You can read about the case and my reaction to the High court decision by clicking on the label below.

All indications are that Iran will not bid on the fragment. I wonder if there was any attempt by Iran to work out a compromise with Mme. Berend?

I'm reminded of a 2004 article by Professor James Nafziger (A Blueprint for Avoiding and Resolving Cultural Heritage Disputes, 9 Art, Antiquity and Law 3 (2004)). In it he points out that cultural heritage disputes are adversarial. In this case, both parties have solid, and perhaps legitimate arguments but only one side will retain the tablet. He discusses the parable of the two sisters, each of whom wants one orange:

How should it be allocated? One solution would be to award the orange to the sister with the greater 'rights' to the orange. That is the strictly adversarial approach that often characterizes the formal resolution of cultural property disputes today. A second solution would be to award half of the orange to each of the sisters, an appealing compromise until it becomes apparent that one sister wants the orange only to eat its pulp whereas the other wants only the orange peel for cooking. Thus, although compromises may often be preferable to either/or solutions, they typically fail to take contending interests, as opposed to stated positions, into account. A third, better informed allocation of the disputed orange would be to encourage the sisters to express their respective interests in the orange and then to work out a mutually productive, more-than-zero-sum solution to a dispute.


Professor Nafziger and the International Law Association have proposed a more collaborative process which has a great deal of merit I think. In this case, Mme. Berend wants to sell the tablet without admitting any wrongdoing, and Iran wants the tablet returned, and perhaps a vindication that its cultural heritage has been taken. Surely there is a middle ground here? In any event the auction will be quite interesting, and I wonder if Iran's legal challenge will have an impact on the purchase price. It could open any cultural institutions to an ethical claim for repatriation or it more likely cemented the purchaser's title which is now beyond legal challenge.
(Hat tip to Chuck Jones for alerting me to the auction).
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