Today’sNew York Law Journal has reported that the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court has overturned a ruling by former Nassau County Surrogate John Riordan and has directed that the estate of a Holocaust survivor return an ancient gold tablet to the Berlin Museum.The court’s unsigned opinion in Matter of Flamenbaum 2010-04400 overruled the lower court’s finding that the museum’s claim was barred by the doctrine of laches. The doctrine of laches provides that where one fails to exercise one’s rights for an undue period of time, those rights are eventually lost.
The gold tablet is an ancient Iraqi relic which documents the construction of the Ishtar Temple and was discovered by German archaeologists in 1913 and turned over to the museum where it remained until after World War II. It seems that the decedent obtained the tablet from Russian soldiers who traded it to him for cigarettes he had received when he was in a displaced persons camp. The decedent’s son reported the existence of the tablet to the museum during an estate accounting after Mr. Flammenbaum died in 2003. The museum then made a claim but the Surrogate ruled that it had failed to exercise reasonable due diligence because it had failed to report the artifact missing . It could have been listed with law enforcement agencies or on an international stolen art registry but this was not done.
The Appellate Division had a different take on the situation. It found that the "executor did not establish that the museum failed to exercise reasonable diligence to locate the tablet." . The estate has promised an appeal to the Court of Appeals . This case hardly appears to be over. Your lawbogger will report the further developments here when they occur.