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Gold tablet returned to German museum after legal battle

Attorney Steven Schlessinger holds a relic, an acient

Attorney Steven Schlessinger holds a relic, an acient Assyrian gold Tablet, which belongs to Long Island Holocaust survivor Riven Flamenbaum, in Garden City. (April 6, 2010) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

An ancient gold tablet that helped a Holocaust survivor start a new life in America is going back to the museum in Germany where officials found it missing from inventory after World War II.

The return of the more than 3,200-year-old tablet began Wednesday during a ceremony in Nassau County Surrogate's Court, ending a lengthy battle over the estate of late Great Neck resident Riven Flamenbaum.

The Auschwitz survivor was living in a camp for displaced people after the war when he gave Russian soldiers cigarettes in exchange for the tiny trinket, according to Garden City attorney Steven Schlesinger.

The lawyer for Flamenbaum's two daughters said their father later used the tablet as collateral to open a New York liquor store after immigrating in 1949.

But Schlesinger said the family never knew the tablet's potential value -- which he's previously said is estimated at $10 million -- until after Flamenbaum's 2003 death.

In 1913, archaeologists excavated the 9.5-gram tablet from the foundation of Ishtar Temple in the Assyrian city of Ashtur in what is now northern Iraq. Court records say the object dates back to the reign of an Assyrian king who was in power starting in 1207 BC, and that an inscription on it describes the temple's construction.

Flamenbaum's daughters, Hannah and Helen, had opposed the tablet's return to Pergamon Museum in Berlin, but New York's highest court recently ruled against them.

In November, the state Court of Appeals rejected a "spoils of war" claim to the object by Flamenbaum's estate, noting that the United States' policy during World War II was to forbid pillaging of cultural artifacts.

The tablet controversy began after Flamenbaum's son, Israel, contacted the museum following his father's death and suggested it once might have been part of the inventory, said museum lawyer Raymond Dowd of Manhattan.

"He is the son of a Holocaust survivor and carrying out his father's will," Dowd said. "That's a truly healing act."

Dowd said the tablet will be featured in a 2018 Near East Asian exhibit at Pergamon.

But Schlesinger said transfer of possession back to the museum only inflamed wounds. "You're taking the patrimony of the father, all he brought with him to America, and giving it back to the government that killed his family," he said.

"My father's turning over in his grave; he wouldn't want to be part of a ceremony like this," said Hannah Flamenbaum, a Great Neck attorney.

Wednesday, a white-gloved museum official studied and measured the approximately inch-long tablet to assure its authenticity before it went into a lock box for transport to Germany.

Surrogate's Court Judge Edward McCarty III praised Riven Flamenbaum's "bequest of this treasure to humanity."

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