The fate of an ancient artifact looted from Berlin’s Vorderasiatisches Museum at the end of World War II is now in the hands of the New York Court of Appeals. In a twist from the way these stories usually go, this piece was taken out of Germany by Holocaust survivor Reuven Flamenbaum who, according to family lore, traded a Soviet soldier two packs of cigarettes or a salami for it after his liberation from Auschwitz. The Soviets helped themselves to the contents of German museums during the final days and weeks of the war and they weren’t alone. German troops did the same, as did penniless and desperate civilians some of whom had taken shelter from the bombing, shelling and advancing armies in the museum itself. A tablet of Assyrian gold the size of a very large stamp or very small credit card is a highly appealing form of currency in a black market economy.
Flamenbaum, originally from Poland, took it with him when he moved to the US in 1949, even using it as collateral to buy the liquor store on Canal Street where he worked. He took it to Christie’s in 1954 to have it appraised and they declared it a forgery worth no more than $100. According to his daughter Hannah, her father never wanted to sell it anyway. He kept the gold card, at various times on display on a mantel or in a red wallet, as a memento of his survival. She fondly recalls playing with the delicate 9.5-gram piece.
Reuven Flamenbaum died in 2003 and Hannah was named executor of his estate. Three years later, Reuven’s son Israel Flamenbaum disputed Hannah’s accounting of the estate and notified the Vorderasiatisches Museum that its long-lost gold tablet was in a safety deposit box on Long Island. The museum immediately filed suit to reclaim the artifact, asserting they held legal title since it was legally acquired and illegally removed. The Flamenbaum estate countered citing the spoils of war doctrine which purportedly made anything looted by Soviet troops their legal property and thus legal to sell for two packs of smokes, and the doctrine of laches, a legal doctrine that requires an owner “exercise reasonable diligence to locate” lost property. Their contention was that since the museum hadn’t told the authorities the tablet was missing or listed it on a stolen art registry after the war and hadn’t actively searched for it in the six decades since, it had given up its ownership claim.
Assuming Christie’s was wrong and it’s the genuine article, the tablet was unearthed by an archaeological team from the German Oriental Society excavating the foundations of the Ishtar Temple, a ziggurat in the Assyrian city of Ashur in what is now northern Iraq but was then part of the Ottoman Empire. The temple was built by King Tukulti-Ninurta I (1243-1207 B.C.). The gold tablet was inscribed in cuneiform with a dedication calling on all who visit the temple to honor the king’s name.
After the end of excavations in 1914, the tablet was loaded on freighter in Basra headed for Germany. The untimely outbreak of World War I forced the ship to change course and head for Lisbon instead. The vast trove of artifacts — they found 16,000 cuneiform tablets alone — had to be stored in Portugal while war raged. Finally in 1926 the tablet arrived in Berlin. It was put on display in 1934 only to be forced into storage again by another world war. The museum put it in storage for its own protection in 1939. They don’t know when exactly it was removed, which is why they can’t say for certain who stole it, but it was discovered to be missing when inventory was taken after the war in 1945.
The museum didn’t report the loss at the time because it was a drop in a very large bucket of pillaged antiquities and the divided authorities of post-war Berlin made for a chaotic legal environment. As for attempting to locate the tablet on its own, that would have been a needle-in-a-haystack job and the museum had so many missing needles in a world of haystacks.
In 2010, a Nassau County Surrogate’s Court found for the Flamenbaum estate, agreeing that museum had failed to make sufficient efforts to find the property as per the doctrine of laches. The Surrogate’s Court judge mistakenly believed that the museum knew from a tip received in 1954 that the tablet was in New York, but the museum denied knowing anything until it received Israel Flamenbaum’s letter in 2006. In 2012 the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court overturned the 2010 decision, agreeing with the museum that it held clear title and that laches didn’t apply because the Flamenbaum estate hadn’t demonstrated that the museum “failed to exercise reasonable diligence to locate the tablet and that such failure prejudiced the estate.” The court noted that even if the museum had reported the artifact stolen to the police and listed it a stolen art registry, there’s no reason to believe they would have found the piece as a result.
The seven judges of the New York Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case on Tuesday. Their decisions typically take four to six weeks, so within the next two months we should know whether the tablet will remain with the Flamenbaums or return to the Vorderasiatisches Museum. If the court finds in favor of the Flamenbaum estate, they want to donate the tablet to the Holocaust Museum in Washington.