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Berlin museum seeks return of ancient gold tablet

A renowned Berlin antiquities museum is trying to get back an ancient gold tablet excavated from an Assyrian temple that a Holocaust survivor somehow obtained after World War II.

Who gets it is up to New York’s top court, which is set to hear arguments Tuesday.

The 9.5-gram tablet, about the size of a credit card, was excavated a century ago by German archaeologists from the Ishtar Temple in what is now northern Iraq. It went on display in Berlin in 1934, was put in storage as the war began and later disappeared.

Riven Flamenbaum brought it to the U.S. after surviving the Auschwitz concentration camp and settling on Long Island. Family lore says he had traded two packs of cigarettes to a Russian soldier for the tablet in the chaotic days at the end of the war.

Flamenbaum’s family is trying to keep the 3,200-year-old relic, arguing the museum forfeited any claim to ownership by waiting 60 years to seek its return.

Lawyers for the Vorderasiatisches Museum, a branch of the Pergamon Museum, said it didn’t know Flamenbaum had the tablet until 2006, three years after he died.

Steven Schlesinger, the lawyer representing the estate, said any claim is complicated by the passage of so much time and Flamenbaum’s death. He said he believes Flamenbaum was trading Red Cross packages and anything else he could get for silver and gold.

The tablet is now in a safe deposit box in New York. One recent estimate put its value at $10 million, he said, and the family wants to donate it to the Holocaust Museum in Washington.

Lower courts were split on the decision, leading to the latest appeal.

According to court documents, the tablet dates to 1243 to 1207 B.C., the reign of King Tukulti-Ninurta I of Assyria. Placed in the foundation of the temple of a fertility goddess, its 21 lines call on those who find the temple to honor the king’s name.

The tablet was excavated by German archaeologists from about 1908 to 1914 in what was then the Ottoman Empire, with Germany giving half the found antiquities to Istanbul, Raymond Dowd, the museum’s lawyer, said. The modern state of Iraq has declined to claim it, he said.

In 1945, the Berlin museum’s premises was overrun, with many items taken by Russia, others by German troops and some pilfered by people who took shelter in the museum, Dowd said. The museum director was not in a position to say who took it, only that it disappeared.

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