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ALBANY -- New York's highest court ruled Thursday that a Great Neck family must return a 3,200-year-old gold tablet that went missing from a German museum after World War II and might be worth millions.
In a 7-0 decision, the state Court of Appeals ruled that the estate of the late Riven Flamenbaum cannot rightfully keep the Assyrian gold tablet that he brought back from Europe after surviving a concentration camp. At the heart of its ruling, the court rejected a "spoils of war" claim to the object.
The decision ends a long-running tale that mixed elements of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" with the Holocaust, sibling rivalry, ancient Assyrian history and obscure legal concepts.
The 9.5-gram, inscribed tablet was excavated about 100 years ago by German archaeologists, who found it in the foundation of the Ishtar Temple, a ziggurat, or pyramidal tower, in the Assyrian city of Ashtur, in what is now northern Iraq. Court documents say the tablet dates to the reign of King Tukulti-Ninurta I of Assyria (1243-1207 BC).
It was put on display in the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin in 1934. But when the museum's artifacts were inventoried in 1945, at the end of World War II, the tablet wasn't found.
Flamenbaum's daughter had said her father, an Auschwitz survivor, traded Red Cross packages for silver and gold pieces with Russian soldiers at the end of the war. Hannah Flamenbaum said that according to family lore, Riven had traded cigarettes or salami for the tablet.
Riven Flamenbaum died in 2003; in 2006, amid a dispute about the estate, his son Israel Flamenbaum informed the museum the estate had possession of the gold tablet. The museum filed suit to regain possession.
The case concluded Thursday when the New York's top court dismissed the Flamenbaums' argument that the German museum waited too long to try to reclaim the tablet. The court also rejected the Flamenbaums' "spoils of war" argument that the Russians held legal title to the piece when Riven Flamenbaum traded for it. The court noted that the official policy of the United States during World War II "forbid pillaging of cultural artifacts."
"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 judges wrote.
"They weren't going to condone the Russian troops' looting," said Steve Schlesinger, attorney for Hannah Flamenbaum. "If the Russian troops had legal title [to the tablet], then the museum couldn't bring action."
Schlesinger said the tablet has been said to be worth $10 million, but no one knows the true value. He expects to receive a court directive in the next two weeks telling him to turn over the gold piece. He said the family was disappointed by the decision.
Hannah Flamenbaum couldn't be reached immediately for comment.
Raymond J. Dowd, the Manhattan attorney who represented the museum, called the ruling a "great moral victory."
"This reaffirms New York as the moral center for the art world," Dowd said. "Many other jurisdictions might not have reached this just verdict."