Friday, June 29, 2012

The Holocaust, Law, Morality, and Stolen Property

    In recent years there has been there considerable litigation over property seized by the Nazis before and during World War II. The members of a Jewish family, or descendants of a Jewish family, which owned valuable paintings or other property, will claim that the paintings or property were either stolen by the Nazis, or the original owners were forced by draconian Nazi laws to sell the paintings or property to non-Jews for a pittance.
    The cases provide an easy confluence of law and morality: the law says a thief cannot pass good title, and property taken by the Nazis should be returned to its true owner or his descendants.
    The Appellate Division, Second Department, has just granted leave to appeal to the New York Court of Appeals in a case which presents an unusual legal twist on property stolen during World War II, Matter of Flamenbaum.  
    When Riven Flamenbaum died in 2003, among his possessions was a small inscribed gold tablet which research disclosed dates to the years 1243-1207 BCE. The tablet was discovered by a team of German archaeologists prior to World War I in what is now northern Iraq. The tablet was loaded on a freighter bound for Germany, but with the outbreak of World War I the ship was forced to stop in Lisbon where the tablet was stored until 1926. (This sounds like an Indiana Jones script.) The tablet eventually was shipped to Germany where it was put on display in a German museum from 1934 until the outbreak of World War II in 1939, when it was put in storage. 
    At the end of the war the tablet was found missing. While not mentioned in the Appellate Division decision, news accounts state that after Flamenbaum was released from a concentration camp he obtained the tablet from Russian soldiers who purportedly stole it from the museum. When the tablet came to light after Flamenbaum's death, the museum made a claim for the tablet in Surrogate's Court, Nassau County.
   The Surrogate ruled that while the museum established a superior legal claim to the tablet, its claim is barred by laches. The Appellate Division reversed, ruled for the museum, and has now sent the case to the Court of Appeals for a final determination.
    The appeal has all the ingredients of a World War II case: concentration camp victim, Russian soldiers, stolen property, German museum. But there is the fascinating twist: the concentration camp survivor is not the victim of the theft; he is the recipient of property stolen from a German museum. How do law and morality resolve this?
    The Appellate Division decision can be found here.  

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