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Covington Scores Appellate Win in Persian Antiquities Case


SAN FRANCISCO, March 19, 2013 — Covington & Burling secured an appellate victory on behalf of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in a long-running dispute over Persian antiquities held by the museum.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled on February 27 that the MFA and Harvard University do not have to turn over thousands of antiquities to a group of U.S. citizens seeking damages from a 1997 Hamas terrorist attack in Jerusalem.

San Francisco-based partner Simon Frankel argued the appeal on behalf of the MFA.

The litigation began when plaintiffs sued the Islamic Republic of Iran in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleging that Iran had provided material support to Hamas and was therefore liable for the attack. In 2003, plaintiffs obtained a default judgment against Iran.

Two years later, plaintiffs registered their default judgment against Iran in the District of Massachusetts and moved for orders of attachment by trustee process against all "antiquities . . . that are the property of the Islamic Republic of Iran" in the possession of the museums.

At issue were approximately 500 objects in Harvard's possession and approximately 1,485 objects held by the MFA that originated in or near the area covered by the current borders of Iran. The objects included stone reliefs, sculptures, and archaeological specimens.

The First Circuit affirmed the lower court decision, which found that plaintiffs could not establish any basis on which Iran “owned” objects at the MFA and Harvard. The Court of Appeals held that if Iran did still own the antiquities, the objects were immune from attachment under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

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