The Samuhel Evangeliar from the 9th century, the most valuable piece from the Quedlinburg Cathedral Treasure.

The Samuhel Evangeliar from the 9th century, the most valuable piece from the Quedlinburg Cathedral Treasure.

Foto: Elmar Egner M. A. / Domschatz Quedlinburg

Shadows of World War II A New Look at the Great Quedlinburg Art Robbery

In 1945, an American officer pilfered valuable pieces from Germany's most important art collection and sent them to Texas, setting off a long search for the items. Now, experts are wondering: Was he just a simple thief? Or was he trying to save the treasure from the Nazis?

Just a few weeks before the collapse of the Nazi regime in Germany, Joe Tom Meador sent several packages through military mail from Quedlinburg, located in Germany’s Harz Mountains, to his hometown of Whitewright, Texas. Meador’s fellow soldiers had previously seen the officer of the 87th Armored Field Artillery Battalion repeatedly emerging from a cave just outside the city gates, his jacket bulging. But apparently nobody suspected they were witnessing possibly the most brazen art theft of these unsettled times.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 21/2023 (May 20th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.

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Thanks to his military rank, First Lieutenant Meador was able to send his sensitive freight without being forced to answer any uncomfortable questions. And he gave his family in Texas strict instructions for dealing with one of the pilfered items. "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 possible be very very valuable.”

The goods that Meador sent back to the United States through military post were indeed quite valuable. They included a comb from the first German king, Henry I, a number of millennium-old reliquaries made of rock crystal and a glorious manuscript from the Early Middle Ages. And the thief’s estimation of his loot’s value was correct: Apparently without realizing it, he had nabbed elements of one of the most valuable and most meaningful art treasures in all of Europe – the Quedlinburg Cathedral Treasures.

A Phantom Thief

What ensued was an unparalleled mystery involving reliquaries from the Middle Ages of inestimable value and shady dealings in the confusions of the Cold War. Characters in the story included a dedicated public servant, an astute German investigator and a tenacious reporter from New York, all of whom set out to track down the missing treasure – eventually locating it. For many years, the thief seemed to be a phantom, with decades passing by before Joe Tom Meador was identified as the culprit.

"Aside from Meador, everybody in this story is apparently a hero," says Elmar Egner, with no small dose of irony. Together with Linda Herbst, Egner has been head of the Quedlinburg Cathedral Treasury Curatorium since fall 2019. When the majority of the stolen goods returned to Quedlinburg in 1993, Egner was only 13 years old, and Herbst had just started elementary school.

Joe Tom Meador in France in 1944. Once the Nazis were defeated, he sent several valuable items back home to Texas through the military postal service.

Joe Tom Meador in France in 1944. Once the Nazis were defeated, he sent several valuable items back home to Texas through the military postal service.

Foto: Elmar Egner M. A. / Domschatz Quedlinburg

Now, the two of them are shining a fresh light on the Quedlinburg theft. After all, the case still hasn’t been completely resolved, with a couple of pieces still missing, presumably still in the United States. From today’s perspective, Egner also finds the rather extreme "self-adulation" displayed by the hunters of the lost treasure when they finally found it, rather conspicuous, adding that there are a number of "incongruities" that raise questions. Doubts have arisen as to whether Meador was, in fact, the bad guy that his pursuers made him out to be. Might he in fact have been a hero? Did the Texan actually want to keep the artifacts out of the hands of the Nazis and their coterie?

Herbst and Egner have examined the testimony of contemporary witnesses and reports from those chaotic days as the Nazi empire was collapsing. The facts feed suspicions that far-right circles, at the very least, wanted to play a part in the art theft.

"Only two elderly men with a shotgun were standing out front."

Elmar Egner, co-curator of the Quedlinburg Cathedral Treasure

One detail in particular raises questions: How would Meador have known where, exactly – among the several dozen crates the Nazis had stored in the cave – to find the relics? Both the city of Quedlinburg and the SS had precise inventory lists of the objects hidden there.

Another inconsistency: Shortly before the Americans took over control in Quedlinburg in mid-April 1945, the Nazi powers-that-be in town had posted a conspicuously inadequate security detail at the hiding place. "Only two elderly men with a shotgun were standing out front," says Egner. It might have been enough to scare off the normal citizenry, he says, "but not an organized unit of Nazis – or Allies."

The Quedlinburg Cathedral receives 80,000 visitors per year.

The Quedlinburg Cathedral receives 80,000 visitors per year.

Foto: Elmar Egner M. A. / Domschatz Quedlinburg

In 1994, UNESCO declared much of Quedlinburg to be a World Heritage Site. Each year, 80,000 people make their way up to the hilltop cathedral to visit the treasury beneath the Quedlinburg Cathedral, where many of them are told the bizarre story of the audacious robbery. Herbst and Egner want to use this year’s 30-year anniversary of the return of the treasure to enrich the story visitors are told with new details.

Even the beginnings of the collection over a thousand years ago weren’t altogether wholesome. Some of the first pieces assembled by Henry I (who died in 936) and his wife Mathilde (968) were acquired in an honest fashion, while others were requisitioned. The first German royal couple from the Liudolfinger lineage loved Quedlinburg and wanted to be buried here next to the holy relics. So Henry had a Palatine chapel constructed, which would later be expanded into a church, complete with a treasury.

Stashed in a Cave

There, the alleged remains of important martyrs were stored in golden and jewel-bedecked reliquaries – including a hand from Saint Denis of Paris, who, during the persecution of Christians in France around the year 250, was allegedly first roasted in an oven before being beheaded. The treasury also contained liturgical manuscripts from the Middle Ages that are priceless today, along with unique textiles.

Over the centuries, many additional valuable objects were added to the collection, and some were lost. Following Prussia’s defeat at the hands of the French in 1806, the entire treasure spent six years in the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother.

The Reliquary of St. Servatius: What visitors to Quedlinburg come to see today is just the "external, valuable containers," say the curators. But in the Middle Ages, the contents were the most valuable part: the blood, bones and limbs of saints.

The Reliquary of St. Servatius: What visitors to Quedlinburg come to see today is just the "external, valuable containers," say the curators. But in the Middle Ages, the contents were the most valuable part: the blood, bones and limbs of saints.

Foto: Elmar Egner M. A. / Domschatz Qu

But it was the Nazis who committed the most foolish blunder. SS leader Heinrich Himmler, who was fascinated by the occult, began converting Henry I’s church into a National Socialist devotional site in 1938. The contents of the treasury stored there had to make way, and were moved to a savings bank in the center of town. In 1942, the collection – a total of 65 objects – was then moved to the Altenburg Caves southwest of the city, a site that had been used to grow mushrooms until that point.

After the Americans occupied Quedlinburg on April 19, 1945, GIs guarded the entrance to the caves. A representative of the city of Quedlinburg nevertheless tried to maintain control over the valuables hidden inside. Even under Nazi rule, officials from the city repeatedly provided instructions as to the appropriate methods for storing the treasure. On one occasion, officials recommended that the objects be brought to the front of the cave, where ventilation was better and the danger of mold not as great. From today’s perspective, it was perhaps an egregious error.

A Secret Rivalry?

Because of the move, the thousand-year-old relics were suddenly much more accessible than they had been when they were kept deeper inside the cave. Was that part of the plan? Egner and Herbst suspect that, in the chaotic weeks of April and May 1945, a secret rivalry developed over who would be the first to access the treasure. Already in the late 1970s, the Quedlinburg parish received a tip that an SS unit had stolen two fingers purportedly belonging to Henry I in the final days of the war – relics that had been discovered in a local church in 1877. But nobody in East German times showed any interest in pursuing the case.

On May 18, 1945, the Quedlinburg city archivist discovered that 12 of the most valuable pieces were missing during a routine inspection. The Counter Intelligence Corps of the U.S. Army launched an investigation into the disappeared artifacts, but the Americans pulled out of the region in July 1945.

The investigation went nowhere, and as far as present-day researchers know, the new occupying power, the Soviet Union, never took up the search. A good four decades would pass before Germany picked up a new lead as to the possible whereabouts of the lost treasure.

In October 1988, a "Quedlinburg gospel book" was offered to the state library in West Berlin for $8 million. A married couple from the U.S. presented themselves as the book’s owners, and they claimed to have inherited the Middle Ages manuscript. They were seeking to complete the sale through several middlemen. It has since become known that the couple were actually Meador’s brother and sister, Jack and Jane.

The "Quedlinburg gospel book" in the description was actually the Samuhel Evangeliar, a 9th century manuscript handwritten in golden ink on parchment during the Carolingian Dynasty. It was the most valuable object among those items pilfered from the Quedlinburg Cathedral Treasure in spring 1945.

The German Ministry for Intra-German Relations and the newly created Cultural Foundation of the German Federal States got involved. According to its statutes, among the foundation’s purposes is that of "sponsoring financially the acquisition of cultural objects of particular importance to German culture and worthy of preservation, especially in order to prevent them from being transferred abroad or in order to reacquire them from abroad."

An Offer from Bavaria

Unfortunately, however, Quedlinburg was located in East Germany. The communist regime didn’t have sufficient cash to purchase the Evangeliar, and East Berlin wasn’t interested in accepting money from West Germany, as a memo from the East German Culture Ministry makes clear: "The purchase of the German cultural heritage object in question by the Federal Republic of Germany cannot be legitimized by the German Democratic Republic." But the parish in Quedlinburg, the actual owner of the treasure, learned nothing of it.

It was only two years later that the case took another surprising turn: This time, a Bavarian offered the Samuhel Evangeliar directly to the Cultural Foundation of the German Federal States. Now, the manuscript, the cover of which is covered in precious gems, was being offered for a "finder’s fee" of around 5 million deutsche marks. And because the Berlin Wall had fallen by then and the foundation no longer had to fear interference from East Germany, it jumped at the chance.

"I love to look at it and stroke my thumb across the parchment paper and simply admire it."

Joe Tom Meador discussing the Samuhel Evangeliar

In the meantime, a German lawyer and a journalist from the New York Times had begun looking in the U.S. for the items stolen from Quedlinburg. After months of searching, the two discovered a lead, which took them to Whitewright, Texas. The man they were looking for, though, Joe Tom Meador, had long since died, having passed away unmarried in 1980. He had kept possession of the priceless objects from Quedlinburg up to the very end.

He had initially kept them in his wardrobe at home, later moving them to a safe in the hardware store he took over from his father. He would proudly display the objects to visitors, saying he had "liberated them in Germany."

Apart from that, though, the former soldier led a rather modest life as a hardware store owner and as a cultivator of orchids. Though he had studied art education before the war, it isn’t clear if he ever realized the extreme historical value of the things he had brought home from Germany.

One witness statement illuminates the almost tender relationship Meador had to the objects from the Quedlinburg treasure, such as the manuscript he had smuggled out of Germany: "I love to look at it and stroke my thumb across the parchment paper and simply admire it."

Fate Intervenes

For the curators Elmar Egner and Linda Herbst, such evidence demonstrates that Meador was never interested in money. But his siblings, who inherited the treasures, were quite eager to sell the objects. And they probably thought they were well within their legal rights to do so. Indeed, Texas law seemed custom made for art thieves.

This reliquary cross is more than 800 years old, and is one of the items from Quedlinburg that hasn't yet reappeared.

This reliquary cross is more than 800 years old, and is one of the items from Quedlinburg that hasn't yet reappeared.

Foto: Elmar Egner M. A. / Domschatz Quedlinburg
This reliquary was also sent to Texas, and has yet to reappear.

This reliquary was also sent to Texas, and has yet to reappear.

Foto: Elmar Egner M. A. / Domschatz Quedlinburg

The laws not only allowed for the appropriation of stolen goods through a kind of common law, they also set the statute of limitations at just two years, giving potential plaintiffs barely any leeway at all. Accordingly, the Quedlinburg authorities would have had to lodge their complaint by 1982, two years after Meador’s death.

At that time, though, nobody in Germany even knew that items from the legendary Cathedral Treasure were to be found in a house in the Texan countryside. As such, Meador’s heirs likely felt they were safe in putting the "gospel book" up for sale in Germany via intermediaries in the late 1980s – and again when the Cultural Foundation sued, initially unsuccessfully, to regain possession of the manuscript.

But fate ultimately did take a turn in favor of the German plaintiffs, and the help came from rather unexpected quarters. By 1990 or thereabouts, the global art market had apparently become aware of the case. And even within the art scene, populated as it was by all kinds of shady figures at the time, nobody wanted anything to do with an internationally sought-after treasure. That's the main reason why Meador’s heirs agreed to a deal. For the relatively modest payment of $912,500, the bulk of the stolen items were returned to Quedlinburg.

But two of the 12 pieces that Meador sent to Texas still haven’t reappeared. One is a reliquary made of rock crystal and the other is an enameled reliquary cross, both over 800 years old and of immense value – and both have disappeared without a trace. Every now and then, Egner and Herbst received potential leads as to their whereabouts, but thus far, nothing has solidified.

Too Big to Be Stolen

One of the leads once again pointed to the family in Texas. The father-in-law of a niece of Joe Tom Meador claimed that he had seen the pieces in a candy box belonging to his daughter-in-law. The FBI investigated, but they found that the story had been made up by the man, who was apparently consumed by vindictiveness.

The curators believe there is a simple reason for the fact that more artifacts didn’t disappear from the cave in Quedlinburg 80 years ago: There was no easy way for Joe Tom Meador to smuggle some of the items out of their hiding place – such as a staff from Saint Servatius, a gold-bedecked artifact in the shape of a cane from the mid-10th century, the provenance of which remains unclarified. It is 132 centimeters long – and thus far too large to have been hidden under Meador’s coat.

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