Long-time residents of San Antonio may remember when the McFarland diamond was stolen from the Witte Museum in 1968. But the value of this object, $250,000, was not the largest art heist in Texas history.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the 1989 crack in the case of one of the richest art thefts in the world. History and mystery, art and romance, law and religion merge with a North Texas flair in the little town of Whitewright, north of Dallas.
In the waning days of World War II, an American soldier liberated some priceless art from a Nazi fortification in Germany. German officials had moved priceless religious artifacts from an ancient church to a nearby cave for safe-keeping from Allied bombers.
Those who read the Robert M. Edsel book or saw the George Clooney movie, “The Monuments Men,” know that protecting valuable artwork was a concern of President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower – but there were many other priorities at the time.
Lieutenant Joe Tom Meador was assigned to guard a cache of sacred treasure in southeastern Germany, but as an art student, he had an appreciative eye for his task. He managed to mail a ninth-century manuscript, a printed evangeliary – a souvenir from the early days of the Guttenberg press, several jewel-coated containers, and other relics from the medieval village of Quedlinburg to his home in Grayson County, Texas.
Such decorated reliquaries were built to hold religious artifacts such as a lock of hair from the Virgin Mary, a splinter of wood from the cross of the crucifixion, or fabric from the robe that Jesus wore. Regardless of the authenticity of such items, the containers were artistically crafted in the sumptuous styles of the day in keeping with the value of the contents.
King Heinrich I (890-936) presented several of these treasures to the convent at St. Servatius when he began to unite feudal city-states into the nation of Germany. One gift, an ivory comb – believed to hold the power to comb out sin – was crafted hundreds of years earlier from African ivory. Its curvilinear lines speak of Islamic origin. Other valuables, Byzantine artifacts gifted by Heinrich’s descendants, were transferred from emperor to emperor before finding a home in the German hills.
Quedlinburg, now a world heritage site, was on the circuit for many of the world’s movers and shakers in the days after Charlemagne. But it drifted into such obscurity that by the 1940s, the Church of St. Wiperti, founded in the 10th century, was being used as a barn. Such was the condition of this town when the liberators’ tanks rolled in.
Although it survived much of the destruction of the world war, almost a dozen extremely valuable religious objects went missing as the town went from Nazi to American to Communist control. The complexities of ownership of the area hastened the end of the treasure theft investigation.
Lt. Meador, a former art student and teacher, became the possessor of religious art so valuable that many who saw it confused the gold for brass, the jewels for glass. Several who saw the rare presentations 50 years ago in the Meador’s hardware store in Whitewright were suitably impressed. Others had a more appreciative eye.
The beauty and value of this trove was used to entice romantic interests for this aesthetic man. The slow shopkeeper lifestyle of this childless citizen and decorated veteran was heightened by the nightlife of Dallas. And his inventory of art drew appeal to new lovers in Big D.
After Meador died in 1980, his siblings began seeking ways to divulge ownership of the treasures. Once the Samuhel Gospel (an illuminated manuscript, so-called because the pages are illustrated with ornamental designs) began appearing in the rare book and art market, a renewed investigation for the other missing items began. Willi Korte, an independent investigator, lawyer, and writer from Germany, enlisted the help of several experts.
William H. Honan, a New York Times art critic, chronicles the resulting search in his 1997 book, “Treasure Hunt.” His opinionated yarn depicts North Texas residents in a Louis L’Amour style, replete with characterizations of local edifices and cultural stereotypes.
Honan made a break in his research at the Sherman Public Library in North Texas. His cross-reference of a list of soldiers stationed in Quedlinburg with the obituaries at the library confirmed his likely suspect. Since Joe Tom Meador died from cancer almost a decade earlier, the search turned toward his brother and sister, Jack Meador and Jane Meador Cook.
Federal charges were filed against the Meadors on behalf of the church of St. Servatius in 1990 and the revelation that Texoma was the repository of world-class treasures circulated in every corner of the international media. The legal entanglements that surfaced brought a new dimension to the narrative. A fresh vocabulary came into use – “finder’s fee” replaced “ransom,” “appropriated” replaced “stolen.” The statute of limitations was stretched.
In the end, the Sherman Federal Court dismissed charges of theft, claiming the prosecutor over-extended her deadline for obtaining evidence. Nonetheless, the Meador family was ordered to pay more than $100,000 in taxes, penalties, and interest by the IRS.
The federal gamesmanship was but a shadow of the intricacies of the international agreements to return the items to their homeland. The period of the reunification of Germany added to the multifarious confusion. It could be said the resulting legal documents were as artfully created as the treasures themselves – and almost as valuable. One clause stipulated an exhibition of the objects at the Dallas Museum of Art.
Nevertheless, the five-decade “vacation” of the treasures from Quedlinburg was but of fraction of their thousand-year history. In the grand scheme of things, the rightful owners still have possession and not much has changed.
Art dealers and traders of antiquities received a black eye for turning a blind eye to items of questionable origins. Two of the 11 Quedlinburg treasures are still missing. As part of the agreement for return of the nine, the German government desires no further prosecution.
The Quedlinburg treasure lives on. Though inanimate, the art lives through kings and thieves, holy men and devout nuns, and the tyrants and museums that have held them for a millennium. And, we might add, they live in the memory of the little town of Whitewright.
*Featured/top image: Joe Tom Meador’s hardware store in Whitewright, TX, where select customers viewed the Quedlinburg treasures. Photo by Don Mathis.