Quedlinburg treasures stolen during World War II on display in Texas

March 10, 1992|By William H. Honan | William H. Honan,New York Times News Service

DALLAS -- The Quedlinburg treasures went on display at the Dallas Museum of Art over the weekend as part of an out-of-court settlement between the government of Germany and the heirs of the American Army lieutenant who stole the treasures in the closing days of World War II.

From all appearances it might have been just another international loan show.

A. T. Muller of St. Louis said, "I'm surprised they don't come out and say they were stolen. Maybe it's morbid curiosity, but that's a large part of why we came to see them." He was among nearly 1,500 to attend the first weekend of the show.

Neither any of the speakers at the museum's opening on Saturday, nor the parchmentlike, 32-page catalog on sale for $10, so much as mentioned that the treasures were here because they had been stolen.

The closest the museum came to acknowledging foul play was an oblique reference in an introduction to the catalog by Richard Brettell, the director of the museum, that the name Quedlinburg had provoked "an intense debate about the ownership of works of art, about war 'booty,' and about cultural patrimony."

In fact, there never had been a debate about the ownership of the Quedlinburg treasures because the heirs of the soldier who mailed them to his mother in Whitewright, 60 miles north of Dallas, acknowledged in court at the outset of the case that the treasures had been "inappropriately removed."

Asked to explain the oversight, Mr. Brettell said that any mention of thievery would have been inappropriately "sensational."

The German officials who came for the opening insisted that the $2.75 million their government paid to the heirs of the thief was not a ransom but a finder's fee.

Klaus Aurisch, the German consul general from Houston, said that Finderlohn, or remuneration for finding lost objects, has legal standing in German jurisprudence.

The Rev. Friedemann Goszlau, pastor of Stiftskirche Domegemeinde Quedlinburg, the small Lutheran church in central Germany, where most of the treasures had been kept for a millennium, hinted at the truth when he remarked wryly, "The objects are comfortable here, but they are getting homesick."

The heirs of Joe T. Meador, the American officer who stole the treasures from their hiding place in a mine shaft southwest of Quedlinburg in April 1945, issued a public statement for the first time since the treasures were traced to their safe deposit box in June 1990.

The heirs, Jack Meador and Jane Meador Cook, declared that their late brother had been falsely portrayed in the media as "a high living thief" and was, in reality, "a quiet man who loved art."

His stealing the treasures, they went on to say, was "fortunate for the Germans" because otherwise the treasures might have "fallen into the hands of the country that occupied East Germany."

The Quedlinburg treasures survived the years of Soviet occupation and domination of East Germany without loss.

Jane Nakama of St. Louis seemed transfixed by the lavishly ornamented reliquary that is said to have belonged to Heinrich I, the 10th-century ruler of an early configuration of German states.

"I came to see these things because they are so very old," she said. The box is one of the nine treasures being shown publicly for the first time since the beginning of World War II, when the Nazis moved them to a bank vault and later to the mine shaft for safekeeping.

The treasures also include a gold-,silver- and jewel-emblazoned biblical manuscript dated 1513; a liturgical ivory comb dating to the seventh or eighth century; five reliquaries of cut rock crystal dating to the 10th century; and a heart-shaped vessel believed to have been fashioned in the 15th century.

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