Assyrian Plaque, East German Museum, Heirs of a Polish Survivor
A museum, in former East Berlin, has lost its claim to recover a small ancient gold plaque from the estate of a Long Island man. In Nassau County Surrogate's Court the museum that owned the plaque from the time of its excavation in 1913 by a team of German archeologists until its disappearance at the end of World War II, was judged to have done so little to pursue its lost artifact, particularly in the years since the reunification of Germany in 1991, that its claim was barred under the doctrine of laches.
The Vorderasiatisches Museum (of the Prussian State Museums in Berlin) is part of the institution that houses the Ishtar Gate from Babylon and the Pergamon Altar. Its collections also include many Ancient Near Eastern artifacts and works of art, a large number of them excavated by German archeologists at a time when national governments would share in the discoveries but allowed some artifacts to be removed under "partage" agreements. The little gold plaque at issue came from the site of Assur in present-day Iraq and dates from the second millennium BCE (from the reign of the Assyrian ruler Tukulti-Ninurta I, 1243-1207 BCE), and is covered with writing documenting the construction of a temple.
In 1914, it was being shipped across the Mediterranean when hostilities of World War I forced the vessel to be diverted to Portugal. The Assur artifacts from the excavation later reached Berlin and remained there until they were sent elsewhere for safety in 1939. Although the museum saved its collection from the World War II bombing of Berlin, when Soviet troops later occupied Berlin, the Red Army took the plaque when it looted German collections and sent them to the USSR.
The deceased, Riven Flamenbaum of Great Neck, New York, had kept the gold object in his safe deposit box and had told his family that he, after surviving Auschwitz, acquired it from Russians on the black market in post-war Germany. He had three children, and his daughter Hannah was made executor of the estate. His son contacted the museum, and the museum took legal action against the estate to recover its property. The March 30 decision rejected the museum's claim for the gold plaque.
John B. Riordan, Judge of the Surrogate's Court, applied New York law in weighing arguments pertaining to the defenses raised by the estate, including the statute of limitations and laches. The estate also raised an argument that the museum could not claim ownership on the theory that Russia, as successor state to the USSR, gained good title under the "spoils of war doctrine" when it seized the objects. The Museum argued that the Hague Convention of 1907 had outlawed the taking of spoils decades earlier. The judge did not rule on this argument, finding that the museum failed on the laches test.
Although each case is unique, the Court referred back to New-York cases involving Nazi-looted art (Menzel v. List) and art looted by a US serviceman from an East German Museum (Kunstsammlungen zu Weimar v. Elicofon) which showed that East Germany, as early as the 1980s, was able to pursue a claim in New York.