A recent decision by a New York surrogate court in Matter of Flamenbaum reads more like the plot of an Indiana Jones movie than a typical estate dispute. In 1913, a group of German archaeologists discovered an ancient gold tablet in Iraq., and it was ultimately placed on display in a Berlin museum. The museum was closed during World War II, and when it re-opened in 1945, the museum discovered that the tablet was missing.
The tablet appeared as an asset in the estate of Riven Flamenbaum. Although there was speculation that the tablet was taken from the museum by Russian troops, how it wound up in Flamenbaum’s possession remains a mystery. Nevertheless when the estate was put to probate, the Berlin museum entered a notice of appearance and notice of claim in the surrogate’s court, bringing a replevin claim against the estate.
The Court held that, while the legal claim of the museum was timely under the statute of limitations, the equitable doctrine of laches barred recovery. The Court pointed out that the museum did not take any steps to investigate the loss, and did not even report the tablet missing to law enforcement or to art loss registries. Apparently, there was word that the tablet surfaced with a dealer in 1954, but the museum made no effort to contact that dealer. The Court held that the delay severely prejudiced the possessor, in large part because their main witness was obviously now deceased. Under those circumstances, the Court held that the doctrine of laches must be applied.
We suspect some sort of settlement will be worked out with the museum, as there is not a particularly extensive market for ancient gold tablets. But if not, it will be interesting to see how an appellate court deals with this case.
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