Attorney From Westhampton Beach Takes On Unique, Challenging Cases

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Raymond Dowd’s career as an attorney has never progressed along what he would describe as a logical path. Unique opportunities and cases, he explained, always seem to knock on his door, taking him in one direction or another.But perhaps more paramount than the outcome of each case was the fearlessness and tenacity with which he met each challenge.

Mr. Dowd, a partner at Dunnington, Bartholow & Miller LLP in New York City, says he is most attracted to cases in which he believes a client has been the victim of a true injustice. The 48-year-old, who splits his time between his Manhattan apartment and his home in Westhampton Beach—where he piles wood next to a stove and seasons his meals with juniper seeds that he collects from the tree overlooking his driveway—has made a name for himself as a well-respected advocate for families seeking the return of art and other possessions lost after they were stolen by the Nazis and, in some instances, looted by others.

Mr. Dowd is also an expert on both copyright and art law, a published author, and fluent in both Italian and French. And he even once battled Sheldon Silver, a longtime state assemblyman and the Speaker of the State Assembly since 1994, for his seat in Albany as a member of the Green Party.

In short, Mr. Dowd has plenty of interesting stories and experiences to share.

“I think at this point, I could write some nonfiction that might be stranger than any novel I could write,” he said during a recent interview.

The attorney’s most recent court victory made headlines internationally. In November, New York’s highest court ruled that the family of a Holocaust survivor, who lived in Nassau County before his death, must return a 3,000-year-old Assyrian gold tablet to the German Vorderasiatisches Museum, which was represented by Mr. Dowd.

German archaeologists first discovered the artifact in 1913 while excavating the foundation of a temple in present-day Iraq. It made its way to the Vorderasiatisches Museum, part of the Pergamon Museum, following World War I in 1926, only to be packaged up with the rest of the museum’s contents before the outbreak of World War II, according to court documents.

From there, the history gets fuzzy.

The tablet, which is smaller than a credit card, went missing at the end of World War II—perhaps looted by the invading Russian army, or taken by Nazi soldiers, or by those who took refuge at the museum, court papers said. It did not resurface until 2003, when Israel Flamenbaum contacted the museum for a unknown reason to say that the tablet was among his father’s possessions.

The museum then filed a notice of claim with the Nassau County Surrogate’s Court in an attempt to repossess the tablet, sparking a legal battle. The court ruled that the museum failed to report the tablet’s disappearance or list it on stolen registries, and denied its claim.

“Literally, within days, I called the lawyers and said, ‘This has to be reversed,’” Mr. Dowd said from his living room

At first blush, it might seem unusual that Mr. Dowd would side against the Holocaust survivor’s family, since so much of his time in court is spent arguing on behalf of many Jewish families still seeking the return of stolen property. But he said the ruling was being used against his clients.

He explained that the case would have harmed many of those Jewish claimants and denied them of their cultural heritage and property—a point, he said, that was lost in some media coverage that instead portrayed a “big bad German museum against a Jewish man.”

The museum retained Mr. Dowd, who is Irish-Catholic, as its attorney and appealed the ruling. In November, the New York Court of Appeals reversed the Surrogate’s Court decision, rejecting the estate’s claim that the Russian government gained title to the tablet as a spoil of war when it invaded Germany and then transferred the title to Mr. Flamenbaum.

David Rowland, an attorney of the firm Rowland & Petroff who specializes in art recovery, said the decision has great significance, especially coming from New York’s top court. “It serves the principle that stolen art should be returned to the victim who lost it,” he explained. “It shows the international community that New York courts return stolen property.”

Mr. Dowd, who gives frequent lectures on the topic of art stolen during World War II and has published a book titled “Copyright Litigation Handbook,” said working for the Vorderasiatisches Museum, which he described as the greatest archaeological museum in the world, was a special achievement.

It was not, however, the first of his cases to draw such widespread attention.

Not long after he graduated from Fordham University School of Law, and after spending a few years living abroad in Italy, Mr. Dowd found himself up against some of New York’s most prominent lawyers in the legal battle over American Tobacco heiress Doris Duke’s billion-dollar estate.

“I had just hung out my shingle as a brand new lawyer,” said Mr. Dowd, noting that he wasn’t even 30 at the time. “It was really trial by fire.”

Mr. Dowd represented a few domestic employees in the case, among them Colin Shanley, Ms. Duke’s chef, who befriended Mr. Dowd when the two worked at the Inn at Quogue some years earlier. Ultimately, the attorney played a role in the removal of the co-executor from the estate and set up a $100,000 trust for Ms. Duke’s pets.

And after that experience, little could faze him, he said.

“I regarded him as a kid, but he wasn’t,” Mr. Shanley said last week, of their days working together at the Inn at Quogue. “He knew how the world worked.”

The chef recalled the guile with which Mr. Dowd, then around 18, handled the “glamour-puss and powerhouse crowd” that dined at the establishment and his meticulous mastery of its menu. “From the earliest days, I realized that he was someone who could walk into any room fearlessly,” Mr. Shanley said. “He’s quite a fighter.”

One of six children, Mr. Dowd was born in Brooklyn, but grew up on Long Island and graduated from Westhampton Beach High School. He said his time working for local restaurant owner Starr Boggs, first at The Patio and then at Mr. Boggs’s own restaurant, influenced his world view and sparked his interest in cuisine.

Visitors to his home, a modest ranch overlooking Moniebogue Canal and once owned by a local fisherman, are often treated to his homemade meals, or crabapple jelly made from the fruit growing in his yard. Moored to a dock out back sits a small sailboat, a gem of a find on Craigslist, and on his coffee table sits an unopened sailing instruction Blu-ray disc.

In the future, Mr. Dowd said he hopes to spend more time outside in his garden or out on the water—that is, when he isn’t lobbying Congress for a fully funded federal judiciary, or the establishment of a special commission that would settle ownership issues related to Nazi-looted artwork.

In October, Mr. Dowd, a member of the Federal Bar Association’s Board of Directors, was named president of the Network of Bar Leaders, a position he hopes will give him the clout needed to accomplish those goals.

And Mr. Shanley has every reason to believe that his friend will find success once again.

“He’s a passionate person, and if the passion for the right fight isn’t there, he’ll let someone else do it,” he said. “You have to have that in your belly, and he does.”

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