late-August heat wave has broken; glaring skies and hundred-plus temperatures have given way to cool breezes and rain clouds periodically pierced by a mild sparkling sun. Cicadas buzz in the trees, Though the setting is little Whitewright, Texas, about sixty-five miles from Dallas and just east of Sherman, the lyrical mood is that of a fine English summer day. Which is appropriate, for a TV camera crew from London’s Channel Four is moving in a tense skirmish line across Whitewright’s neat little cemetery, bent on milking every last cliche from the scene.
Sensing their approach, the cicadas settle into a wary silence.
“Christ!” says the head cameraman to the soundman. “Take the boom over to the trees and see if you can’t stir the grasshoppers up a bit.”
“’Actually, I believe they’re locusts,” says the producer.
There is a doubtful pause. A crew member goes to a nearby grave, removes a bunch of white plastic daisies, and sets it reverently beside the memorial block. Nods of approval. The camera rolls.
“Perfect,” says the producer. “Now for Joe’s grave.”
The camera points its nose at a smaller stone slab. This time pink plastic
a pastoral note.
“Perfect,” says the producer. The folks back home will love it. After all, this is the grave of the Mystery Man who pulled off the Art Heist of the Century.
For the best part of a year, White-wright (“Everything’s ’right’ about Whitewright,” proclaims the sign just outside of town) has been the unlikely Texan half of a tale of two cities, of an international almost-incident that has held its place in the news against competition from Iraq and the plunging national economy.
The trouble began last March when a thirty-five-year-old West German lawyer and art historian, Willi Korte, showed up unannounced in Whitewright. Striding in his best “High Noon” style into the First National Bank of Whitewright, Korte cold-cocked bank president John R. Farley with a one-liner as fraught with presumption as Stanley’s greeting to Livingstone. The bank, he told Farley, was sitting on a cache of priceless medieval artifacts stolen in 1945 from the German church of Quedlinburg by a citizen of Whitewright. Quedlinburg, he added, would be grateful for their immediate return.
Farley neither confirmed nor denied Korte’s charges. He and an assistant listened to what Korte had to say. Then, with all the aplomb he could muster, Farley showed him the door.
For the next few days Korte lived through a fever of anxiety. For all he knew, Farley might spirit the treasures out of the state or out of the country. Korte, who can be forgiven a touch of paranoia, even worried that Farley might have the artifacts destroyed “in a fit of panic.” So when he was contacted two days later by a trio of heavies from the Dallas law firm of Haynes and Boone, talking with breezy condescension of the complexities of international law, Korte breathed a long sigh of relief. The treasures were there. They had not been moved. And some of the breeziness across the table faded when Korte let his interlocutors know that he too was fielding heavy artillery, in the form of the Texas firm of Andrews & Kurth, one of whose senior Washington partners had won a headline-making stolen-art case only last year.
Meanwhile, The New York Times reported that the thief was a former art student from Whitewright named Joe Meador, who had been a lieutenant with the U.S. 89th Armored Field Artillery Battalion in Quedlinburg in 1945. After the war, following a brief stint teaching art in an elementary school and at Texas A&M, Meador returned to work in the family hardware store in Whitewright after his father Claude Meador fell ill. There he turned to orchid cultivation, perhaps to alleviate bruised and unrecognized artistic impulses, and achieved both mastery and recognition in that rarefied sphere. And there, in 1980, Joe Meador died of prostate cancer.
Following the Times story, the town became the site of a media circus. Reporters and photographers invaded, stalking the citizens and the Meador family for memories of the late Joe Tom. Neighbors and former employees told the press that Joe had been in the habit of dusting off items from his haul and displaying them at home or in the hardware store, thus giving rise to colorful images of jewels and scepters amid the two-by-fours and chicken wire. With predictable swiftness the term “art heist of the century” made its appearance. And soon the press was labeling the late Joe Meador “a reclusive orchid-fancier,” discreet media shorthand echoed across the Atlantic by a German paper that called Meador a “verhinderter Feingeist,” or “thwarted delicate spirit.” In interviews published in newspapers and magazines across the country, old friends and army buddies of Joe Meador characterized him as “effeminate” or a “sissy” and claimed that he had been in the habit of ’liberating” art in other sectors of the European theater, not just Quedlinburg.
If Joe Meador’s body was beginning to heave in its grave, this was nothing compared to the passions stirred in Whitewright by the media assault. Loyalties were put to the test; some were betrayed; others were reaffirmed. Local and national patriotism was dusted off and trotted out. While the majority of White-wright’s citizens seemed to favor returning Meador’s booty, some felt that looting was the victors’ right back in 1945, and that if the Americans hadn’t done it, the Rooskies would have.
The town’s reactions to the national media blitz were many and various. A sign saying “No reporters” went up on the Meador family hardware store. On the advice of their attorneys, Joe Meador’s closest surviving kin (and heirs) refused to talk to the media. When it was reported that the Internal Revenue Service had a beady eye on the Mead-ors, sympathy for the family deepened. And some citizens complained that the town “ought to get something” for all its trouble, as if Whitewright had been stricken by a tornado or some other act of God and deserved to be declared an official disaster area.
And then an Austin-based magazine weighed in with a new perspective on Joe Meador. While unable to turn up many exact details about the 1945 theft, the magazine dished up sordid stuff about Whitewright’s reclusive orchid-fancier. As it turned out, Joe Meador had led a flamboyantly homosexual life in and around his weekend Dallas pad, the Willowick apartments on Ames-bury. Moreover, although he was hardly ever known to drink in Whitewright, Joe’s boozing in Dallas was heavy and increasingly out of control; it was booze that had put a crimp in Meador’s activities as a judge and organizer at orchid shows, and cut short his work as publisher of his own orchid-enthusiast magazine, the Southwest Orchid Review. Worse, his drinking made Meador, like many aging gay males, vulnerable to being assaulted and robbed by casual pickup partners. Finally, prostate cancer put an end to the weekend trips from Whitewright to Dallas. And once Joe entered the Whitewright nursing home where he would die, the family, according to friends, vetoed visits from his gay Dallas acquaintances.
THE LEGACY Joe Meador never married. He left $24,331 in real estate holdings and $105,556 in stocks to his brother Jack and his sister Jane, the wife of Mesquite dentist Don H. Cook. He left “all my silver, china, and crystal” to his nieces and nephews. Nowhere in his will is there a mention of any shiny little trinkets Joe might have picked up in the small German cathedral town where they had been gathering dust for ten centuries. Yet that unacknowledged and (as the IRS quickly noted) undeclared legacy has boomeranged on his heirs.
There is no King Tut curse attached to the Quedlinburg “treasure.” Compared with, say, the finding of sunken Spanish gold off the Florida Keys, the Quedlinburg haul doesn’t rank. But while the word “treasure” can be misleading (all German churches have a “Schatzkammer,” or treasure chamber, where objects of artistic, historic, or liturgical significance are stored), there’s more than a semantic quibble involved with the Quedlinburg cache.
First of all, the objects are of extreme antiquity. In fact, the jewel of the Meador booty-a lavishly illuminated Book of Gospels-dates back to the early 10th century, literally to the first years of Germany’s birth as a nation.
To understand what this means, think back a handful of centuries to the time when the Roman Empire, stretching from present-day Turkey to the southern borders of Scotland, was becoming overextended and increasingly vulnerable to “barbarian” incursions from places like. . .well, Germany. With the forces of militant Islam pushing irresistibly north and west in a protracted holy war, Christianity itself was virtually obliterated over large areas of Europe. Literacy, once widespread among the ruling classes, soon survived only in the monasteries. Not even the great leader Charlemagne, optimistically named Emperor of the West in the year 800, could hold Europe together for long.
Not for another half-century was the moribund Holy Roman Empire revived. And this time the man consecrated Emperor was a German king, Otto I, who, alone among Charlemagne’s successors, was containing the barbarian incursions and consolidating his turf rather than fragmenting it.
Amid this chaos, the abbey church of Quedlinburg first saw the light of day in 936 A. D., the year Otto III became Emperor. In those days the idea of a fixed national capital was still new and tentative; the royal capital was wherever the king chose to stop for a month or two to settle administrative business and hear legal disputes. Quedlinburg was one of those places.
There was nothing democratic or even particularly spartan about monasteries back then: they were run by members of aristocratic clans. The more exalted the mother superior, the more glittering the gift the monarch left behind him when he pulled up stakes and moved on to his next temporary “capital.” And since Quedlinburg’s first abbess was Mathilde, widow of Henry I, and one of her successors was the sister of Emperor Otto III (meaning that the treasure was under imperial patronage), these thank-you gifts tended to be glittering indeed. After two or three centuries, in fact, they amounted to treasure in any language.
So valuable did the Quedlinburg cache become that early attempts to inventory the treasures were thwarted by ownership squabbles between the abbess and the local magnate. Sometime during the Reformation of the 16th century, the treasure disappeared, spirited away to a neighboring town by the angry blue-blooded nun. As the centuries rolled past, the treasure survived Napoleon’s secularizing scourge, numerous wars, and the Nazis. Then came Joe Tom Meador.
THE GERMAN CASE When the theft was discovered in April 1945, Quedlinburg officials notified the U.S. Army, which began an inquiry. Whatever the sentiment about war booty in Texas today, by 1945, international agreements and the dictates of Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower had made it clear that works of art were off-limits to predatory liberators. Since the end of World War II a considerable amount of such “liberated” art has been repatriated under the watchful auspices of such agencies as the State Department, Interpol, and the FBI.
But the Army’s investigation into the Quedlinburg theft ended in 1949, when Quedlinburg disappeared into the arms of Communist East Germany. How far did the Army’s investigation go? The Army isn’t saying, and anyway it claims that the relevant records have been destroyed.
Nor is there any official report on how the people of Quedlinburg felt about their departed artifacts. Did they keep on caring during the treasure’s forty-five-year Texas exile? Or did the embrace of godless Communism blind them to higher matters? The point is of some interest, for the lawyers hired by Meador’s heirs are expected to invoke the statute of limitations in reference to the moving of stolen objects across state or national borders, as well as the concept of “due diligence’-in other words, has Quedlinburg pursued the search for the looted goods with sufficient enthusiasm to keep its claim alive?
As regards the statute of limitations and the due-diligence concept, the answer seems simple enough. As long as the Communist East German regime remained unrecognized by the United States, there was no way the church could have sued for return of the objects in a U.S. court, even if it had known where the objects were. Father Friedemann Gosslau of the Lutheran Church of Quedlinburg acknowledges that about half of the town’s 30,000 inhabitants have settled there since the war and are “without traditional consciousness of what the treasure means.” But Father Gosslau says that “for those of us who have always lived in Quedlinburg and who carry its history in our bones, the missing treasure has been and is a question that is very much alive.”
Most Texans, and most of the people of Whitewright, would probably sympathize. As already noted, however, there remains a stubborn stratum that insists Joe Tom Meador did no wrong. Dave Bryant in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram struck a note of terminal Bubbaism in this imaginary speech he put into the mouth of U.S. District Judge Sidney Fitzwater, handling the Quedlinburg case in federal court in Dallas:
“Yes, the Quedlinburg treasures are in the United States, and they will stay there… Joe Tom and his G.I. buddies didn’t want to be in Germany. But they had to be there because Germany was being run by a pack of lunatics who started the war and were directly responsible for the deaths of uncountable millions of people.. .Besides, if this court ruled that Joe Tom’s art had to be returned to Germany, what would stop a bunch of unrepentant old SS butchers from suing to recover their beloved skull-emblazoned helmets and daggers? It is appalling that in one of the first acts taken by a reunifying Germany an American court is being used by German interests to sue Americans. ..”
Appalling or not, that is what was happening. Striding boldly into the china shop came Willi Korte, representative of one of those very same “German cultural groups” Dave Bryant was inveighing against: the Cultural Foundation for the Prussian States, one of whose current mandates is to hunt down items like those Bryant calls “Joe Tom’s art.”
Korte, a tall, fair-haired man who looks younger than his age, speaks formidably effective English with a biting tongue, and appears to react to the worst of Bubbadom with a contained but smoldering anger. Attempts by Americans to find a telling analogy for the treasure infuriate him. “They ask me if it’s like stealing the Declaration of Independence,” he says. “What the hell am I supposed to tell them? Sure, the Declaration is also a manuscript… but that’s where all comparisons end.”
Like all but a handful of people, he was unaware until late last year that treasures were even missing from Quedlinburg, let alone sitting in a Whitewright hardware store and the vault of the bank next door.
“Even if I had known,” he says, “there would be little we could do. Until the Berlin Wall and all the rest came tumbling down last year, there was no contact between the Federal Republic and East Germany. For an East German museum director to approach a Western institution would virtually have amounted to high treason.”
In the late Eighties, Willi Korte began hearing intriguing tips from sources in the small world of rare manuscript dealers and collectors: something big was being floated on the Swiss art market, a forum whose blind eye to title questions makes it a favorite place for “laundering” stolen art by giving it a Swiss authentication by auction. Korte’s superiors encouraged him to keep up his inquiries, but they could offer him little official sanction as long as East Germany remained Communist. But when in late 1989 the two Germanys officially agreed to merge and to share their secrets, Korte’s hands were untied. Then he learned that a sister organization for the recovery of stolen German art, the Cultural Foundation of the States, had been offered a 10th century manuscript known as the Samuhel Gospels, the jewel of the Quedlinburg treasury, for a ransom (discreetly called a “finder’s fee”) of $3 million from a Munich dealer named Heri-bert Tenschert. Thai sent Korte into action.
His one clue to the whereabouts of what was still missing was Tenschert’s claim that he had bought the manuscript from a Houston collector. Furious that Germany had been forced to buy back a pan of its own heritage, and vowing that it would not have to buy back the rest, Korte contacted art correspondent William H. Honan of The New York Times. In all likelihood, he told Honan, the original thief was an officer (“officers don’t have to answer so many questions as enlisted men”), possibly from Texas, serving in one of a handful of units stationed in Quedlinburg in April 1945. Honan moved in on the case; independently of Korte, he began to go through Army records in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
But checking Army records was an onerous way to retrace the paper trail that had surfaced in Switzerland. There were 154 officers who could have fit the thief s description; tracking down and interviewing every one of them would have taken years.
Fortunately, there was another route to the place the manuscript had come from: the porous world of art collectors and art dealers, It was there that Korte learned that the Samuhel Gospels had come from the vault of a bank in Whitewright, Texas. But even knowing that, Korte journeyed to the heat and dust of North Texas on little more than a hunch-that is, until the bank’s lawyers showed up to protect the home team against pesky foreigners.
In short order it emerged that the treasure, or a substantial part of it, was indeed in the vaults of the First National Bank of Whitewright. Korte, now acting officially for the Quedlinburg Church, filed suit in Dallas federal court for the return of the objects and for damages.
That did not end Korte’s quest. Far from it. In the few short hours between the filing of the suit and Judge Sidney Fitzwater’s court order prohibiting the removal of the objects from the bank, Korte went through some hairy moments. Making matters worse, Korte really had no idea of what was in the bank. The list of missing items in the church suit was more of a catchall guide than a precise inventory. It was based on the U.S. Army’s own notes of what was missing, not on official inventories of the Quedlinburg treasure, last carried out in the Twenties.
For a few weeks last summer, a lot of Tex-ans sweated with Willi Korte as the dust began to settle and the principal parties in the dispute swam into view. There were Joe Tom’s heirs, of course, and their children and grandchildren. The First National Bank of Whitewright was named a codefendant and immediately moved to be struck from the suit, claiming the role of innocent bystander even though it was believed to have accepted the treasure as collateral for a loan to a cash-strapped Jack Meador, and to have sought surreptitious appraisal of the Samuhel Gospels and another manuscript. The bank’s lawyer, Timothy Powers of Haynes and Boone, inspired perhaps by the reportedly holy nature of some of the objects, mangled an image from the Good Book: “We’ve been treated like the Good Samaritan,” he is said to have complained. And then there was the mysterious John S. Torigian, the Meador attorney who had sold the Samuhel Gospels to Tenschert for $3 million, with the promise of a second manuscript, decidedly inferior and going for only $500,000, to follow. (In mid-October this second manuscript, a gold. silver, and jewel-encrusted Gospel dated 1513, was handed to the Cultural Foundation of the States by an anonymous source.)
TORIGIAN THE TERRIBLE
OF ALL THE PRINCIPALS IN THE QUEDLIN-burg caper. Torigian raised far and away the most hackles, His name appeared early on in the paper trail leading from Whitewright to Tenschert. Granted, Joe’s heirs and the bank were seeking expert evaluation of the treasure as early as three years after his death in 1980. But it was Torigian and Jack Meador’s son Jeff who first approached Dallas appraiser John Carroll Collins in 1986, lugging a 10th century manuscript with a carelessness that appalled Collins. Although he did not recognize the loot he was shown, Collins was fairly certain, he says, that it was stolen, and said so to Torigian and Jeff Meador. For a more learned opinion (Collins is not a manuscript expert), they sought out Dechard H. Turner, former director of the Humanities Research Library at The University of Texas in Austin.
Torigian and Jeff Meador showed only photos to Turner, but photos were enough for Turner to realize that he was looking at something of extraordinary value-something, moreover, that had obviously been stolen. He urged Torigian to restore the manuscript to its rightful owner, although he could only speculate as to its exact origin. “I told them I had friends who had helped me in the past and who might agree to help me again,”’ Turner says. “I offered them a million dollars to restore the manuscript to whoever the owner was, but I had to see the manuscript first.” What he had in mind, he says, was some sort of quid proquo arrangement whereby the manuscript would be peri-odically returned to the United States for exhibition. Torigian, he says, laughed at his offer. A second meeting was arranged at an Austin club, at which the two promised to bring the manuscript itself. At the last moment, Torigian canceled.
Later, says Turner, he showed the photos to a visiting friend, Christopher de Hamel, rare manuscript specialist at Sotheby’s in London. “De Hamel took one look,” says Turner, “pulled a single sheet of paper out of his briefcase and laid it in front of me. It was the catalogue page describing the Quedlinburg Gospels.”
I asked de Hamel if Turner’s estimate of value of between $30 million and $60 million for the Samuhel Gospels was reasonable. Turner’s estimate was largely based on the 1983 sale of the 12th century Gospel of Henry the Lion, which fetched nearly $12 million at Sotheby’s. It was at that time the highest price ever paid for a work of art. In arriving at the Samuhel figure, Turner considered the recent inflation of art prices, plus the fact that the Quedlinburg Gospel is no less sumptuous than Henry the Lion’s and is considerably older.
De Hamel more or less agreed with Turner’s valuation, although he was careful to make the standard noises about the impossibility of speculating about such matters. “But make no mistake,” he said, “this book was intended to look expensive and be expensive. It is in all senses of the word a treasure manuscript.”
Turner was staggered when he read that the Samuhel manuscript had been sold. “I had lost three years of sleep over it,” he says. His loathing for Torigian (“oily, greedy, crude”) is boundless. He has much milder words of reprobation for Rick Brettell, director of the Dallas Museum of Art, where the Quedlinburg at last found safe refuge. The DMA, Turner notes, had declared itself neutral in the case. But as a Texan, he feels there can be no neutrality in the Quedlinburg caper. He says the DMA should not be harboring stolen goods.
Brettell responds: “The whole problem with these objects is that they used to be in a bank in unsupervised conditions. They are now in a safe place where they will be protected and can be properly examined and catalogued. And they are in Dallas, where the hearings are going on. The parties in the suit approached us, remember, not the other way around.”
Brettell, asked about the custodianship agreement governing the museum’s storage of the treasure-and the clause stipulating that the DMA will not consider displaying the loot until the case is settled-says the DMA would never display anything for which clear title didn’t exist. But he adds, a bit wistfully: “If we could display the treasures now we wouldn’t have to worry about this year’s projected deficit…”
So there it remains until the courts decide who owns what and where and why. While no allegations of criminal wrongdoing have been filed or are anticipated, until late September Whitewright considered Torigian the real villain of the piece. It was he who had seduced the plain folks of the Meador family into selling what was. after all, rightly theirs. If he was blameless, why had he weaseled out of the case so quickly? Why was he now refusing to take calls? At the same time, the popular imagination had cast Joe Meador as a flawed genius, a lover of beauty (witness the orchids) rather than of brute gain. Then the rather cozy picture of a loot-crazed Torigian leading Whitewright’s innocent lambs to the slaughter began to spring multiple leaks.
It seemed that Joe Tom’s brother Jack had run into hard times in the early Eighties and approached Farley’s bank for a loan, offering the Quedlinburg treasure as collateral. Banker Farley had apparently gone along, at least to the extent of seeking appraisal of the artifacts without seeking a parallel opinion about their place of origin. As Meador’s heirs sought appraisals ever farther afield, moving from Dallas to Austin and eventually to London and Paris, they left in their wake dealers and curators who now claim to have backed off from the treasures as soon as they realized there was something fishy about their credentials. Such disclaimers meet derision from Korte. He asks how it was that no one from Christie’s of New York (for example), which had had the two Gospels in its possession from November 1987 to March 1988, had ever bothered to pick up the phone and ask questions of appropriate quarters such as Interpol or the FBI.
It was in this mood that Whitewright and Dallas settled into a waiting period. But on September 10 a new revelation in The New York Times blew fresh fog across the cast of characters. Joe Meador, the paper revealed, had been court-martialed in Biarritz, France, seven months after the Quedlinburg heist for stealing china and silverware from a countess in whose villa he was billeted. The lover of beauty not gain, the lonely homosexual who reportedly had agonized over his illicit custodianship of the Quedlinburg treasures, the breeder of rare, fragile orchids, had been nabbed swiping the spoons.
LOOKING FOR JOE TOM
THE TIMES COURT-MARTIAL STORY COM-plicated the search for the real Joe Tom Meador. It also moved Willi Korte’s early suspicions about the exact contents of the Whitewright bank vault into the public mind. If Joe Tom had carted off the countess’s spoons, might there not be some truth in the allegations by Army buddies that he had stolen from churches and stately homes across the length and breadth of Europe?
“In any case it’s made things a lot easier for me,” says Korte. “Now that we know he looted from the French, no one will be able to claim that Joe was a patriot motivated by feelings of vengeance against Germany!” But the complications were beginning to pile up. Some of the Quedlinburg objects, including a rock-crystal flask in the shape of a mitre, were missing. And some of the objects at the DMA were not from Quedlinburg. There was a coin collection, for example, as listed in the church suit against the Meadors. And it was a German coin collection. But not Quedlinburg’s. There was also a rock-crystal flask, not German but perhaps northern French. Korte (“My mission isn’t just a German one; I want to return stolen art wherever I find it”) had already begun to hunt for the original owners. But his basic quest is still Quedlinburg’s. “They say every man should plant a tree, have a son, and do a good deed,” he says. “I want to be remembered as the man who brought back to Quedlinburg what it had lost.”
Meanwhile, though, the appearance of unexpected items in the Whitewright trove raised other questions: how many of the Quedlinburg items were still missing? And were they now in Meador homes in Whitewright or Mesquite or Austin? Had they too been sold on the black market by Torigian? Or had Joe given them as presents to lovers or proteges in Dallas? Had they been stolen from him in his last drunken years?
These questions have still to be answered. Joe was freer-spending on his Dallas jaunts than the income from a small-town hardware store would normally allow. But interviews with Meador’s Dallas acquaintances indicate that Joe is unlikely to have given away or sold anything, except perhaps to a niece, Jane Cook’s daughter. He was tight-fisted with his possessions. When one object vanished from his Dallas pad after one particularly drunken evening, he followed it all the way to Houston to retrieve it.
As the pathetic side of Joe Meador’s life emerged ever more strongly, Willi Korte began to feel that he had lost a treasured adversary. As long as Joe had seemed to be redeemed by some unconditional love for beauty, it was possible to concede a heroic dimension to him. Like Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and bringing it down to humankind, Joe Tom had brought imperial treasure to a small-town Texas hardware store. But in the end the truth didn’t square with such a picture. Orchids aside, Joe apparently didn’t aspire to anything much more than impressing his gay acquaintances with his poise and polish. He didn’t visit museums much. His furniture was ordinary. . .
“What I keep asking myself,” says Korte, “is why didn’t Joe get the hell out of Whitewright? Why didn’t he have the guts to get up and leave and make something of himself instead of living a double life? It’s as if the only glory days in his life were that year in Europe, and after that it was all downhill.”