Judith Weingarten, an archaeologist, has a very good extended discussion of the Met's difficulty, and a great rundown with links of the ongoing tablets dispute over at IntLawGrrls:
The tablets are not commercial assets like oil wells, tankers, or houses. Instead, these types of culturally unique and important materials fall within a special protected category and are not subject to seizure. This trove of tablets has never been a commercial item to be bought or sold. The tablets have never been a source of profit either to Iran or to the Oriental Institute. They are non-commercial items of cultural heritage, every bit as unique and important as the original document of the Constitution of the United States. (Imagine if a future Iraqi government were to put a lien on that document.) The stakes are enormous. If the lawsuit prevails, this would do irrevocable harm to scholarly cooperation and cultural exchanges throughout the world.
That is already starting to happen. The Syrian government had offered to lend the Met invaluable parts of their cultural heritage: many of these objects that had never left the country before. Of American institutions, only the Met has the resources to pull off such a project, which depends as much on personal contacts as on cash. That little card on the wall doesn’t say it all.
Interesting points. As museums continue to find it harder and harder to acquire new objects, loans are a great substitute which alleviates pressure on the existing regulatory framework. When leases become difficult as well, American courts and lawmakers ought to seriously consider whether the attachment of these antiquities really is the best way to proceed.The Met submitted applications for immunity from seizure for all the borrowed foreign works — including pieces from Armenia, Georgia, Greece, Lebanon and Turkey, as well as Syria — but finally decided that the FSIA amendment jeopardized the Syrian loans. Though not on display, the 55 Syrian objects are in the catalog. There you can see how important a role they played in the internationalist narrative conceived by Joan Aruz (right), the curator in charge of the Met’s department of ancient Near Eastern art.