Fayez Barakat



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Setback for Iran in antiquities court battle
29th March 2007

Iran today suffered a legal setback in its bid to recover a number of rare ancient vessels allegedly looted from tombs.

It claims that the 18 artefacts, which date from 3000BC and have an unknown value, come from sites in the Halil Rud valley, south of Jiroft in the Kerman province of south-east Iran.

The recently-discovered ancient Jiroft civilisation was one of the earliest literate societies in the world.

Since 2001, excavations have uncovered graves containing beautifully carved chlorite objects, like those in dispute, but many tombs were emptied illegally between 2000 and 2004.

Iran wanted Mr Justice Gray, at London's High Court, to order the delivery up of the two jars, five cups, six vases, one bowl, one vessel and three weights held by The Barakat Gallery of Brook Street in Mayfair.

Its counsel, Hodge Malek QC, said the gallery had no title to them as there was "no way on Earth" that the unknown finder of the artefacts could obtain good or lawful title to them.

"This case is so important for Iran because they believe objects of this quality, being the best ones in the tombs, should be back in Iran."

But, the judge held that, under the provisions of Iranian law, Iran could not show that it had obtained valid title to the antiquities.

He also ruled that, even if Iran could show that it had obtained such title under Iranian law, such law was unenforceable in the English courts.

"I have come, with some regret, to the conclusion that Iran has not discharged the burden of establishing its ownership of the antiquities under the laws of Iran.

"I readily accept that Iran has gone to some lengths to list and secure protection for its natural heritage and to penalise unlawful excavators and exporters.

"But the enactments relied on by Iran fall short in my judgment of establishing its legal ownership of the antiquities."

Commenting that it was a "troublesome area" of the law, he gave Iran permission to challenge his ruling in the Court of Appeal, after Mr Malek submitted that it would have "a huge impact on the black market trade in antiquities".

Two very large shipments of such artefacts had recently been intercepted by Customs in the UK and returned to Iran.

The gallery, which intends to fight any appeal, does not accept that the antiquities came from Jiroft and, in any event, says it has acquired good title to them under the laws of France, Germany and Switzerland, where it acquired them.

It also maintains that, even if Iran had title to the antiquities, by virtue of Iranian law, the claim could not succeed because Iran was seeking to enforce penal or public laws of a foreign state.




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