Nazi Victim’s Family Told to Return Artifact

New York Times 1 June 2012
By Patricia Cohen

A state appellate court in Brooklyn has ordered the family of a Holocaust survivor to return an ancient gold tablet to a German museum.

The decision turns on its head the familiar scenario of Holocaust victims suing to reclaim property stolen or extorted from them by the Nazis. But in this case, according to court papers, the precious 3,200-year-old Assyrian artifact had been looted, not from the survivor, but from the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin, at the close of World War II.

It is not clear how the survivor, Riven Flamenbaum, came into possession of the tablet after his liberation from Auschwitz in 1945, when he was sent to a displaced persons camp in southeastern Germany.

But when Mr. Flamenbaum immigrated to the United States four years later, he arrived in New York with a wife he had met at the camp and the inscribed gold tablet, which is about the size of a passport photo.

Only after Mr. Flamenbaum’s death in 2003 did his children discover that the thin golden square had been stolen from the museum.

The museum subsequently sued for its return, and in 2010 a Nassau County Surrogate Court judge ruled in favor of the Flamenbaum family, citing the failure of the museum to ever report the tablet as stolen, and the impossibility of discovering how Mr. Flamenbaum acquired it. The appellate ruling reverses that decision.

Raymond J. Dowd, the lawyer who represented the museum and who has represented the families of Holocaust victims trying to recover lost art, called the decision historically significant.

“The principle that property taken unlawfully should be returned is consistent with the rights of Holocaust victims,” he said. “This precedent will help those seeking return of stolen works that are museums not only in the U.S. but throughout Europe.”

But a lawyer for the family, Seth A. Presser, said the decision had “caused a remarkably inequitable result” and that it would be appealed.

“We believe that the court has misapprehended certain facts and, as a result, misapplied New York law,” he said.

The four-judge appeals panel unanimously ordered the surrogate court to oversee the return of the tablet, which sits in a safe-deposit box.

A team of German archaeologists discovered the tablet in 1913 while digging in an area of Iraq now called Qual’at Serouat, according to court papers. It wound up in the Berlin museum in 1926 and when the war broke out in 1939 was placed along with other antiquities in storage for safekeeping. When an inventory was conducted at the end of the war, the tablet was missing.

Mr. Presser said the family had no plans to sell the tablet. Mr. Flamenbaum’s daughter, Hannah, previously told AOL News, “It was all he had left from ‘that bitter time,’ and he wished to hand it down to his children and future generations to serve as a reminder of the brutality and decimation of his family at the hands of the Nazis.
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