A long time ago, archeologists discovered a beautiful golden tablet buried in the sands of the ancient Assyrian Empire, now known to us as Iraq. After many delays and a small diversion to Portugal during WWI, the golden tablet made its way to a Berlin museum. The tablet did not rest there long, but was supposedly "liberated" by the occupying Russian army after the fall of Berlin at the end of WWII. The tablet finally found a home with a Holocaust survivor who himself had moved to New York. After his death, his children inherited the tablet, and in a 'no good deed goes unpunished' twist, let the museum know they had it in their possession. The museum sued.
Of course the long, strange trip of the golden tablet had to end up in a New York courtroom, or you probably wouldn't hear about it here. But since it did, let us continue the story. According to the report in the New York Law Journal, after notifying the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin of the whereabouts of the tablet, the heirs of Riven Flamenbaum found themselves sued for its repatriation in New York Surrogate Court, which oversees estate actions. According to Flamenbaum's children, Israel, Hannah and Helen, who inherited the piece when he died in 2003, their father had purchased the artifact on the black market from some Russians. Now the pieces begin to fall into place...
The judge overseeing the case, Judge John B. Riordan, found the tablet, actually an ancient construction document, to be the rightful property of the heirs of Riven Flamenbaum. In essence, Judge Riordan held that the museum had waited too long and not pursued its claim for the tablet with enough diligence. The museum never reported the artifact stolen or listed it as missing on any international art registry, even after a University of Chicago professor reported that he had seen the artifact in New York. In fact, there is nothing in the Law Journal report, to suggest that the Vorderasiatisches Museum would have even discovered the location of the tablet if the heirs had not been kind enough to let them know where it was.
Judge Riordan decided this lack of energy on the part of the museum barred their claim under the legal theory called laches. Laches is a legal principle which prevents a party from making a claim after an unreasonable delay. To keep the other party from being prejudiced by the disappearance of evidence or witnesses over time, a claimant must actively seek to protect his or her rights. In this case, the museum claimed that the chaos following the war and the ensuing oversight by the Soviet-controlled East German Government prevented it from pursuing the claim. However, the judge found that they had ample opportunity to seek the missing artifact, but did not.
Mr. Flamenbaum's heirs are delighted to keep their father's artifact. "It represents my father's hardships," said Hannah Flamenbaum, now an Assistant New York Attorney General. Meanwhile, in a dark warehouse in the basement of a museum...
- German Museum Loses Attempt to Reclaim Artifact From Estate (New York Law Journal)
- Laches (FindLaw's LawBrain)
- Liberation and Looting in Iraq (FindLaw's Writ)