Almost one month ago, a Long Island Judge decided to allow the children of Holocaust survivor, Riven Flamenbaum, to keep the small, inscribed gold tablet he got from a Russian soldier in post-war Berlin. Estimated to be worth around $10 million, the ancient Assyrian artifact rested for thousands of years in the remains of the temple of Ishtar, about 150 miles outside of Baghdad. It was discovered in 1913 and eventually found its way into the storerooms of the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Germany during World War II. Officials believe that the item was stolen from the museum by Soviet troops in 1945.
How did Flamenbaum come into possession of this valuable artifact? He bartered for it with a Russian soldier in Berlin, following his release from Auschwitz. He gave the soldier a few packs of illegal cigarettes, and the soldier handed him the gold tablet.
A few years later, Flamenbaum moved to New York City. Meanwhile, the museum never placed the tablet on its list of missing items. This is quite understandable given the volume of artifacts looted in World War II. Though some note that the museum never made reasonable attempts to recover the item, even after receiving a tip in 1954. This is also understandable when one considers the number of hopeless leads and tips the museum must have received for many years following the war. Nevertheless, the Flamenbaum family benefitted from owning the item, by using it as collateral to purchase a business on Canal Street. An appraiser even told them it was worth a mere $100. It was not until the family contacted the museum that they learned of its true value and the museum sued for its return.
The Flamenbaum attorney, Schlesinger, argued that under the spoils of war doctrine, anything that the Soviet troops took from the museum during the war became their lawful property. Therefore, Flamenbaum’s ownership is legal as well. They also argued that the doctrine of laches, which essentially states that someone who is lax in pursuing their rights can lose those rights, applies against the museum since they did not reasonably pursue avenues to recover the item. Indeed, they did not even list it as stolen after the war. There are many issues surrounding this legal theory in the case of antiquities, however. Primary among these is the fact that publicizing this kind of theft can serve to push the item further underground. Also, it should be taken into account that there were so many items stolen during World War II, and the flood of “tips” and false leads that were being pursued following the war.
Personally, I feel that this was an incorrect application of the law under the circumstances. I do not presume to know, as a first year law student, the intricacies of the relevant law, but this offends my sense of justice. I understand that the judge insisted the doctrine of laches apply, due to the fact that Flamenbaum has died and the case is being fought by his children. Since he cannot testify as to exactly how he got the piece, prejudicing the trial against his family. However, holding the museum in fault for their actions hardly seems right. It was not feasible, or even really recommended, for them to publicize the theft and pursue it, particularly in post war Berlin.
Moreover, though Flamenbaum is no longer here to tell the story before the court, he always told his children that he got the tablet by trading some black market cigarettes for it. He obtained the tablets through a black market trade deal and I frankly feel that this fact should have been taken into account. I also feel that the spoils of war doctrine was incorrectly applied here due to the fact that there are numerous international laws in place to prevent plundering during times of war.
Kieran Crowley and Chuck Bennett, “Holocaust Survivor’s Kin Can Keep $10M Relic.” New York Post. April 6, 2010.
Vesselin Mitev, “German Museum Loses Attempt to Reclaim Artifact From Estate.” New York Law Journal. April 6, 2010.