ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A dispute over an ancient gold tablet pitting a Holocaust survivor's heirs against the German museum that lost the Assyrian relic in World War II will be argued Tuesday at New York's highest court.
The 9.5-gram tablet, about the size of a credit card, was excavated a century ago by German archaeologists from the Ishtar Temple in what is now northern Iraq. It went on display in Berlin in 1934, was put in storage as the war began and later disappeared.
Riven Flamenbaum, who died in 2003, brought it to the U.S. after surviving the Auschwitz concentration camp and settling on Long Island. Family lore says he had traded two packs of cigarettes to a Russian soldier for the tablet after he was rescued from Auschwitz.
"Part of the problem was that since the museum waited until after he died to make a claim, I have not heard testimony in court as to how he got it," said Steven Schlesinger, representing the estate. "Anything the heirs can say would have been hearsay."
Schlesigner said he believes Flamenbaum was trading Red Cross packages and anything else he could get for silver and gold.
The tablet now sits in a safe deposit box in New York. One recent estimate put its value at $10 million, he said. The family wants to donate it to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, Schlesinger said.
The Court of Appeals will decide whether the museum waited too long, more than 60 years, before trying to reclaim it. A Surrogate's Court judge on Long Island said it had unreasonably delayed, but a midlevel court last year ruled the other way.
"We established a superior right of possession and title," said Raymond Dowd, attorney for the Vorderasiatisches Museum, part of the renowned Pergamon Museum and its large collection of antiquities.
The original judge erroneously thought the museum knew in 1954 the tablet was in New York and didn't pursue it, while the midlevel court concluded it didn't know until 2006, when its claim was pursued, he said.
According to court documents, the tablet dates to 1243 to 1207 B.C., the reign of King Tukulti-Ninurta I of Assyria. Placed in the foundation of the temple of the fertility goddess, its 21 lines call on those who find the temple to honor the king's name.
The tablet was excavated by German archaeologists from about 1908 to 1914 in what was then the Ottoman Empire, with Germany giving half the found antiquities to Istanbul, Dowd said. The modern state of Iraq has declined to claim it, he said.
In 1945, the Berlin museum's premises was overrun, with many items taken by Russia, others by German troops and some pilfered by people who took shelter in the museum, Dowd said. The museum director was not in a position to say who took it, only that it disappeared.