In a ruling rejecting any claims to the “spoils of war,” New York’s highest court concluded Thursday that an ancient gold tablet purchased by a Holocaust survivor must be returned to the German museum that lost it during World War II.
The Court of Appeals unanimously agreed that Riven Flamenbaum’s estate is not entitled to the 3,000-year-old Assyrian relic, a 9.5-gram tablet smaller than a credit card.
“We decline to adopt any doctrine that would establish good title based upon the looting and removal of cultural objects during wartime by a conquering military force,” the court said in a memorandum.
“The ‘spoils of war’ theory proffered by the estate — that the Russian government, when it invaded Germany, gained title to the museum’s property as a spoil of war, and then transferred that title to the decedent — is rejected.
The tablet, inscribed with an exhortation to honor King Tukulti-Ninurta I, was excavated a century ago by German archaeologists from the Ishtar Temple in what’s now northern Iraq. It went on display in 1934 and disappeared after the start of the war.
Flamenbaum, an Auschwitz survivor, brought the tablet to the United States when he settled in New York. Family lore says he got it by trading cigarettes to a Russian soldier. Flamenbaum lived his life as an Orthodox Jew and was a member of Great Neck’s Young Israel, along with his children, Yisroel, Chana and Helen. He died at age 92 in 2003 and bequeathed the tablet to them.
The court also rejected the argument that the Vorderasiatisches Museum, part of the renowned Pergamon Museum, waited too long, more than 60 years, before trying to reclaim it. A judge on Long Island said it had delayed unreasonably, but a midlevel court last year ruled the other way.
Attorney Steven Schlesinger said the family was disappointed and questioned whether the court refused to uphold “title by right of conquest” because it would open the door for those who obtained art looted by Germans during the Holocaust.
“You can’t argue that the United States doesn’t recognize the right of conquest when this entire country is the result of the law of conquest,” he said, citing territorial expansion that includes Texas and California and at least 50 Indian land claims in New York.
The court said there was no proof that Russia ever possessed the tablet and that it was official U.S. policy during World War II to forbid pillaging of artifacts.