Pieces of Gold

A 3,200 year-old artifact, a small tablet telling the story of the construction of an Assyrian temple in ancient Mesopotamia was stolen by the Red Army when it plundered the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin in 1945. A roving black marketeer traded a pack of cigarettes for it in 1946 and brought it with him when he emigrated to the USA. The ancient gold tablet was worth $10 to $14 million dollars. The man’s son later contacted the museum and tried to negotiate a sale, but refused to sell it when he was not offered enough money, so in 2006 the Vorderasiatisches Museum filed a claim for the return of the tablet. But the family now decided that they were “sentimentally attached to it” and fought to keep it. The court case stated:

“The gold tablet was found during an excavation around the city of Ashur, now Qual’at Serouat, Iraq, by a team of German archeologists led by Walter Andrae. The inscribed tablet, which was discovered in the foundation of the Ishta Temple, is actually a construction document, according to the judge. It dates to the reign of the Assyrian King Tukulti-Ninurta I (1243-1207 BCE) who expanded the Assyrian empire but was later killed by his son. When the excavations finished in 1914, the tablet was packed up along with other artifacts and sent to Basra, where it was loaded on a Germany-bound freighter…. In 1934, the tablet was put on display at the Vorderasiatisches Museum…. Five years later, with World War II looming, the museum was closed and the tablet was put in storage along with other antiques and works of art. At the end of the war in 1945, an inventory discovered that the tablet was missing. Nearly 60 years later, in April 2003, the tablet was discovered among the possessions of........., after his death.”

In 2010, a New York Judge ruled that the object will remain in the possession of the family. He said that the museum had waited too long to press its claim. The director of the museum disagreed, testifying that in post-war Berlin, it was impossible to fill out a report or alert the authorities given the chaotic nature of the occupation and the separation of East and West Berlin. As the museum was located in East Berlin, a “Soviet satellite state,” the political and financial restraints imposed on it made its delay “entirely reasonable.” The museum also contended that both international authorities and the Hague Convention of 1907 prohibit “pillaging and plundering.”

The family’s lawyer disagreed to both points and claimed they were poor excuses and quipped: “To the victor goes the spoils,” arguing that under the “spoils of war” doctrine, cultural property removed by Russian troops during the occupation of Berlin after World War II was “lawfully transferred from one sovereign to another and that this taking of the gold tablet extinguished the rights of the museum pursuant to international law.” The court interpreted international law on its own and agreed. The family’s other lawyer said the object had become part of the “family’s history” and that the family was “offended by the efforts of the German government.”