There's been speculation that sometime in the 1940s, Holocaust survivor Riven Flamenbaum may have swapped a pack of smokes for a gold tablet no bigger than a Post-it note, which he kept until his death.
But however Flamenbaum got the priceless treasure, a New York court has ruled it belongs to a German museum and must be given back.
The Flamenbaum family intends to appeal the decision by the state appellate court in Brooklyn, a lawyer for the family said Friday.
"We're extremely disappointed," said attorney Seth Presser. "We believe it a terribly inequitable decision."
The appeals court ruling issued earlier this week reversed a 2010 decision by a Nassau County Surrogate Court judge who found that the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin had taken too long to claim an ancient artifact so rare that lawyers say it defies valuation.
The reversal was "based on a simple proposition: Stolen stuff goes back," Raymond Dowd, the museum's attorney, said Friday. "This is a victory for all museums around the world."
According to museum records and other documents, a team of German archaeologists discovered the tablet in 1913 in an area of Iraq that was part of Ottoman Empire. They say the piece _ described as "the equivalent of a modern-day construction document" _ dates to the 13th Century.
The tablet was on display from 1934 until the start of World War II, when it was placed in storage. At the end of the war, it was discovered missing.
The museum director has testified that Russian troops looted the museum. And family folklore suggests that once Flamenbaum was liberated from Auschwitz, he ran into a Russian general who made the artifact-for-cigarettes trade, Presser said.
"But the point is, we don't know," the lawyer said. "The only man who knows what happened here is dead."
What's certain is that Flamenbaum arrived in the United States in 1949 with the tablet among his few possessions. When he died on Long Island in 2003 at age 92, he left it to his three children.
With Flamenbaum's estate still in flux in 2006, the museum sued for return of the artifact, claiming theft. But the surrogate court rejected the claim, citing the museum's "inexplicable failure" for decades to report the tablet as stolen or missing, even after it learned in 1954 that it was briefly in the hands of a New York dealer.
The appeals court disagreed, saying the museum "established that it had legal title and superior right of the possession to the tablet."
The tablet will remain in a safe-deposit box until the legal battle is resolved.