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New York Appeals Court Orders Estate to Return Artifact Stolen from German Museum

An important part of estate planning is taking stock of what you own. After your death, your executor will have to prepare an official inventory and account of your property. You can facilitate that process by keeping an updated list of your assets with your will, trust and other estate planning documents.

It’s equally important to have some idea of what your property is worth. Under California law, most probate estates must have its assets valued by a probate referee, a person authorized by the state to conduct appraisals. (Trusts can also use a probate referee, but are not required to.) The probate referee’s appraisal then becomes the official valuation for probate and federal estate tax purposes.

As part of your estate planning, you might wish to engage private appraisers who specialize in real property or personal property like jewelry. These appraisals won’t be official for later probate purposes, but they can give you an approximate value to help you determine how best to distribute your estate. If nothing else, the appraisal process will encourage you to take stock of your assets.

In The Matter of Riven Flamenbaum, Deceased

Once there is a probate estate, the courts will require a full and accurate accounting of all property owned by the deceased. Many probate disputes begin when an executor fails to include, or properly value, an estate asset. An unusual case recently decided by New York State’s highest court helps illustrate this principle.

Riven Flamenbaum was a Holocaust survivor who later emigrated to New York. When he died in 2003, Hannah Flamenbaum, his daughter and executor, found a credit-card sized gold tablet among several items in his safe-deposit box. Riven Flamenbaum’s will made no mention or bequest of the tablet, and Hannah Flamenbaum failed to specifically identify it in the estate accounting she made to the New York probate court.

The tablet, it turned out, was actually a 3,000-year-old artifact from the Middle Assyrian Empire, an ancient kingdom that ruled much of the Middle East. German archaeologists discovered the tablet during an expedition in the early 20th century. The tablet was later taken back to Germany and displayed at the Vorderasiatisches Museum Berlin from 1934 until the outbreak of the Second World War. When the war ended, the tablet and several other items were missing from the museum’s inventory, most likely pilfered by the occupying Soviet army.

Somehow Riven Flamenbaum ended up with the tablet. The estate’s attorney told the New York Daily News, “Family lore is that he traded a Russian soldier two packs of cigarettes for it.” In any case, Hannah Flamenbaum only identified the item as part of a “coin collection” in her probate inventory.

Hannah’s brother, Israel Flamenbaum, filed a written objection in court to the accounting. He also notified the Vorderasiatisches Museum, which then filed a claim with the probate court to recover the tablet. Several years of litigation followed to establish legal ownership of the tablet. On November 14 of this year, the New York Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the museum.

Make Sure Your Property Is Really Yours
Aside from the obvious lesson of, “Don’t lie to a probate court about an estate inventory,” another takeaway from this story is always make sure you have clear title to your property. The estate lost here because it could not prove Riven Flamenbaum ever acquired legal title to the tablet. Instead, the estate cited “family lore” and speculated that the Soviet government must have acquired title as a “spoil of war” and then transferred it to Flamenbaum. (Indeed, even if that were true, U.S. law does not permit the “pillaging of cultural artifacts” during wartime.)

While most of us aren’t harboring stolen war booty, any valuable asset you own should be properly titled and documented for the benefit of your future executor and heirs. And if you’re dealing with antiquities-that you legally acquired, of course-an appraisal by a qualified professional should also be part of your estate planning. As always, a California estate planning attorney can advise you on the best way to inventory and value your assets. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady today with any questions.

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