Oriental Institute helps in return of stolen Persepolis artifact to Iran

Extensive archives show carved stone relief missing from 1930s UChicago excavation

Sometime in the spring of 1936, a thief walked up the stairs of a royal building in the heart of the ancient city of Persepolis and pried off a chunk of a 2,500-year-old parapet. It was a carved stone relief of an imperial soldier carrying a spear and shield, the limestone curls of his beard and hair beautifully rendered.

For thousands of years he had been guarding his staircase in Persepolis, a magnificent center of the Persian Empire built around 520 B.C. After Alexander the Great pillaged the city in 330 B.C., it lay in ruins for nearly two and a half millennia until the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago began the first major excavation of Persepolis in the 1930s—one of the most important research projects in Middle Eastern archaeology. Thousands of documents from the excavation are still stored in the Institute’s archives.

Thus it was that when in 2017, a carved soldier appeared in the advertising for an upscale art fair in Manhattan, a scholar thought it could be part of the stolen block—and that with the help of the Oriental Institute’s archives, she could prove it.

Lindsay Allen, a scholar of Near Eastern history at King's College London, had followed the piece as it traveled a long, strange journey. In 1950, it was donated to a Montreal museum by the heir to a Canadian department store fortune. In 2011 it was stolen from the museum, then recovered and then sold to a private art dealer. Now it was up for sale, valued at $1.2 million.

Allen suspected that 2011 wasn’t the first time it had been stolen. She reached out to the Oriental Institute, the nation’s premier center for the study of ancient Iran and home to about 52,000 objects from ancient Persia.

“Archives like the Oriental Institute’s are so valuable as a long-term resource for both scholarship and for tracing the history of artifacts in cases like these,” Allen said.

She had been tracing the pieces that left Persepolis as part of her research into how archaeological material scatters from sites, and she knew that the director of the Oriental Institute excavation had written a letter about a piece reportedly missing from the site. From both its online database and a trip to the Institute’s archives, she even had images of a photograph that showed the relief that matched this piece as it was excavated, and a later photo where it was gone.

This evidence was enough to allow the Manhattan district attorney to confiscate the fragment. But the dealers contested the seizure, and the district attorney’s office needed even more thorough documentation of the evidence to prove the case in court—so they contacted the Oriental Institute.

‘Overwhelming’ archival evidence helps win case

The Institute’s archives contain hundreds of preserved documents from the excavation of the site. Head archivist Anne Flannery, with several students, sifted through box after box of photos, correspondence, maps and requisitions. Because Persepolis had been looted before official excavation began, there are more than 150 fragments of the city scattered around the world; in particular, the D.A. was looking for proof that the piece was taken after 1930, when Iran specifically passed a law banning the removal of any artifacts other than those allowed by official agreements.

Coordinating with the DA’s office, they carefully scanned more than 500 pages of evidence, including a letter from the site’s head excavator, dated March 28, 1936 that mentioned the theft of two slabs from a southern stairway. “In the end, the evidence from the archives really was overwhelming,” Allen said.

The judge agreed. The New York Supreme Court ordered the piece to be returned to Iran—the first such piece from Persepolis to be repatriated. Allen and Flannery were both present at the D.A.’s office in September when the relief was officially handed over to the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations.

It was the first time Flannery had seen the actual piece. “It was so small and delicate,” Flannery recalled. “That was what was surprising about it to me, after it had become such a big part of our working life these past months.”

Allen said the case sets an important precedent. “It’s vital for scholarship to be oriented to protect sites like this, especially when one has been so extensively plundered for 100-plus years, as this one has,” she said.

The level of proof the D.A. needed to prosecute the case was extremely high, Allen said, so the carefully preserved records of the Oriental Institute were crucial.

Assistance was provided by Oriental Institute Museum curator Kiersten Neumann and chief curator and deputy director Jean M. Evans, as well as the Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization of Iran and the Parsa-Pasargadae Research Foundation.

The artifact was ceremonially unveiled in a new display at the National Museum of Iran in Tehran.

Funding: Oriental Institute Collections Research Grant, funded by Jim Sopranos.