Unknown (Northwest Germany)
Reliquary in the form of a crucifix (12th century)
2.76 x 2.17 in. (7 x 5.50 cm)
Near the end of the war, priceless artifacts were stolen from their hiding place in Germany by an American Army officer. Owned by Quedlinburg Abbey, the relics had been stored in a nearby mine shaft in a cave in the Harz mountains to protect them from Allied air raids. They were stolen by Lt. Joe T. Meador and shipped to his parents in Whitewright, Texas. The majority were found and returned to Germany in the early 1990s, but two pieces remain missing.
Almost all German churches keep their precious artifacts in a Schatzkammer, or treasure chamber. However, the Quedlinburg treasury exceeded other German churches in artistic, historic, and liturgical importance. Many of the objects date to the tenth century, the same time as the formation of the German Kingdom. In the medieval period, the monarch would bestow gifts to the Abbey when he would stay there, and since the first two abbesses of Quedlinburg were a royal widow and the sister of an emperor, the objects given were some of the finest throughout Germany.
The cache included a wooden reliquary; a jewelled ivory-and-gold comb; several rock-crystal flasks; a gold, silver, and ivory casket; and a small heart-shaped box. Two manuscripts were among the loot, most notably the Samuhel Gospels from the ninth century. Beautifully illustrated and illuminated in gold, it was incredibly preserved and had important art-historical value as an early example of Western painting. The other manuscript, the Evangelistar, dated from the sixteenth century and was encrusted with jewels. Having examined the objects, an expert stated that they “rank[ed] among the … most significant medieval church treasures in Germany.” While the monetary value is somewhere around $200 million, they are also priceless in cultural value.
The treasure survived medieval ownership struggles, the Reformation, the looting of Napoleon’s army, and the Nazi regime, until the day they were taken by Lt. Meador. While his unit, the 87th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, was briefly stationed in the town of Quedlinburg at the end of the war and charged with guarding the cave, Meador found the mine shaft that the treasure had been hidden in for safekeeping and would mail the objects one by one back to his parents in Texas, accompanied by letters. In one he wrote, "There are two that I want to know about for sure," he continued, "One is a box that contains a book, the cover of the book has a statue of Christ on it. By all means, if it gets home take extra good care of it. I have an idea that the cover is pure gold and the jewels on the cover are emeralds, jade and pearls. Don't ask me where I got it! But it could possibly be very very valuable."
In the later legal battle surrounding the return of the objects, his family would maintain that he had no idea of the value of the pieces he stole, and that he had found them “in the gutter.” The revealed letters proved otherwise. He is also thought to have stolen other objects during the war. In another letter, “he cautioned his parents not to show the treasures to anyone,” and by August 1945, he was complaining: “Now that the war is over it is harder to get things.” It was later reported in the media that in December 1945 he was court-martialled for the theft of silverware and china from the villa of the Marquise of St. Carlos in Biarritz, France. While the theft in Quedlinburg was discovered in April 1945, the US Army did not trace the crime to Meador, and it would be close to fifty years before the truth would come to light.
Meador died in 1980 of prostate cancer with no children, having left all his holdings and possessions to his brother Jack and his sister Jane. The Quedlinburg treasure was not mentioned in the will, however by the early 1980s his brother Jack was having financial problems and offered some of the objects to the First National Bank of Whitewright as collateral for a loan. Other pieces were appraised in Dallas, Austin, London and even Paris, encountering many art professionals that did not seem to have asked any questions about the objects’ places of origin.
The treasures were traced to the First National Bank, and its management was confronted on the issue by German lawyer Willi Korte. The bank president neither confirmed nor denied their presence, but the appearance of lawyers on their behalf a couple of days later indicated the objects were still in Whitewright. Armed with his own lawyer, Willi Korte began the long legal process for restitution. Meanwhile, in June 1990, The New York Times named the looter of Quedlinburg as Meador, creating a media frenzy in Whitewright.
The investigative work hinged on the reunification of East and West Germany, and with it, two sister organizations, the Cultural Foundation of the States and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. The former has been recently offered the Samuhel Gospels for what amounted to a ransom; a “finder’s fee” of $3 million from a Munich art dealer. He had bought it from a “Houston collector,” and it was with this and other information that The New York Times was able to trace Meador as the culprit. The manuscript was further traced back to the Whitewright bank, and lawyers filed a suit in Dallas federal court for the return of the objects and for damages.
In 1991 a deal was reached for the Quedlinburg treasure to return to Germany, while the heirs of Joe Meador received a reported $2.75 million in return. The objects were displayed at the Dallas Museum of Art before being exhibited to large crowds at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Berlin. In 1992 they were finally returned to Quedlinburg. It was reported that the IRS was investigating the Meadors for $30 million in back taxes, interest, and penalties for not reporting previously their ownership of the art.
While the majority of the inventory was found safely and returned home, there are still two pieces missing; the Fatimid period triangular rock crystal reliquary from the tenth century and the Northwest German reliquary in the form of a crucifix from the twelfth century. It is believed by experts that these two sacred objects are still in Texas and held with people other than the Meadors.