Ostensibly, it’s a run-of-the-mill family dispute over a father’s will.
But the case, listed as Matter of Flamenbaum, Deceased, mixes elements of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with the Holocaust, sibling rivalry, ancient Assyrian history and obscure legal concepts.
The seven judges of New York’s highest court heard arguments in the case Tuesday, trying to make sense of who rightfully owns a credit-card-sized piece of gold that had been missing for decades and now could be worth millions of dollars.
The estate of Holocaust survivor Riven Flamenbaum of Great Neck is appealing an order requiring it to return an ancient gold tablet to the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin.
The 9.5-ounce, inscribed tablet was excavated about 100 years ago by German archaeologists who found it in the foundation of the Ishtar Temple, a ziggurat in the Assyrian city of Ashtur, in what is now northern Iraq. Court documents said the tablet dates to the reign of King Tukulti-Ninurta I of Assyria (1243-1207 BC), making it more than 3,200 years old. The inscription describes the building of the temple complex.
It was put on display in the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin in 1934. But when the museum’s artifacts were inventoried in 1945, at the end of World War II, the tablet was missing.
Flamenbaum died in 2003; in 2006, amid a dispute about the estate, his son, Israel Flamenbaum, informed the museum that the estate had possession of the gold tablet. The museum filed suit to regain possession and the case has been in court since.
A lower court found for the estate, but a midlevel court overturned it, ruling for the museum. The Court of Appeals typically takes four to six weeks to decide a case.
Hannah Flamenbaum, one of Riven’s daughters and the executor of the estate, said her father, an Auschwitz survivor, traded Red Cross packages for silver and gold pieces with Russian soldiers at the end of the war.
“It was either for two packs of cigarettes or a piece of salami,” Hannah Flamenbaum said outside the courtroom Tuesday, repeating what she called the family lore. “My father, in his nature, probably traded for it. He was a peddler.”
Riven Flamenbaum, a native of Poland, moved to New York around 1949 and ran a liquor store. He kept what he called his “coin collection” either on a mantel or in a little red wallet. Hannah said he brought the tablet to Christie’s, the famed auction house, in 1954, but they told him he had a forgery. She said they never thought much about it until Riven died at age 92. Israel Flamenbaum filed objections to Hannah’s accounting of the estate and notified the Berlin museum about the tablet, according to court documents.
Hannah and a sister maintain that the museum’s claim on the artifact is barred by a legal doctrine known as laches. Plainly stated, it means that the museum gave up its claim to the tablet because it “failed to exercise reasonable diligence to locate” it for more than six decades.
Steven Schlesinger, the lawyer representing the estate, said any claim by the museum is complicated by the passage of so much time and Riven Flamenbaum’s death. Schlesinger said the tablet, which is being held in a safe-deposit box, has been said to be worth $10 million, but no one knows the true value.
Raymond Dowd, attorney for the museum, countered that until Vorderasiatisches received Israel Flamenbaum’s letter, it had no idea of the tablet’s whereabouts.”Did the museum have an obligation to seek it out,” Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman asked.
“No,” Dowd replied.
“Is it really fair for your client to sit around 60 years and wait until [Riven Flamenbaum] is dead, and then come in and sue?” Judge Robert Smith probed at another point.
Dowd said many scholars had written about the missing piece, so it was known in the research world.
“Obviously, Israel Flamenbaum knew about it,” Dowd said. “He wrote the museum and said item VA994 is in my family’s possession.