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Holocaust Victim’s Kids Owe Museum Gold Piece

(CN) - A 3,000-year-old gold piece that was included in a Holocaust survivor's estate should be returned to a museum in Berlin, New York's highest appeals court ruled.

Before World War I, a team of German archaelogists unearthed a gold tablet from the foundation of the Ishtar temple in Ashur, Iraq. The gold piece was inscribed in the Assyro-Babylonian language and dates back to the reign of King Tukulti-Ninurta I, who ruled Assyria in the 1200s B.C.

The archaeologists shipped the tablet to the Berlin Museum, which was closed during World War II. After the war, the tablet was gone.

It resurfaced in 2003 in the estate of Holocaust survivor Riven Flamenbaum, who lived in Nassau County, New York.

When Flamenbaum's daughter, Hannah, settled the Long Island man's estate, she listed a "coin collection" among its contents.

Her brother, Israel Flamenbaum, objected, claiming that Hannah had undervalued the collection, which he said "includes one item identified as a 'gold wafer' which is believed to be an ancient Assyrian amulet and the property of a museum in Germany."

He informed the museum, which replied that it was the rightful owner of the gold piece. The museum, which has since been renamed the Vorderasiatiches Museum, took action in the Surrogate's Court to recover the tablet.

An expert for the museum explained that items from the museum were removed by Russian and German troops, as well as by people who took refuge in the museum during the war.

The Surrogate Court ruled that the museum's claim was barred by the doctrine of laches because the museum had failed to report the disappearance of the gold piece.

Vorderasiatiches Museum found favor, however, when it brought the case to the New York Appellate Division's First Department in Manhattan.

There, a three-judge panel found no evidence that the museum did not make a reasonable effort to locate the tablet, and that any inaction from the museum did not prejudice the estate.

The New York Court of Appeals, which is the Empire State's highest court, affirmed last week.

"We agree with the Appellate Division that the Estate failed to establish the affirmative defense of laches, which requires a showing that the musueum failed to exercise reasonable diligence to locate the tablet that such failure prejudiced the estate," the unsigned opinion from the seven-justice court states.

"While the museum could have taken steps to locate the tablet, such as reporting it to the authorities or listing it on a stolen art registry, the museum explained that it did not do so for many other missing items, as it would have been difficult to report each individual object that was missing after the war," the justices added.

Flamenbaum's estate also failed to show that it was entitled to possession as a result of the "spoils of war" theory, whereby the Russian government would have gained possession of the tablet during the war, according to the ruling.

"The estate's theory rests entirely on conjecture, as the record is bereft of any proof that the Russian govenment ever had possession of the tablet," the justices wrote. "Even if there were such proof, we decline to adopt any doctrine that would establish good title based on the looting and removal of cultural objects during wartime by a conquering military force."

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