I had a very unusual Valentine’s Day gift from my husband who agreed to take me to the movie (somewhere he rarely will go) to see “The Monuments Men.” I had been wanting to see the movie because it reminded me so much of another World War II series of events involving treasures that were located right here under our noses.
The movie, an adaptation of the nonfiction book by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter, tells the story of a team of world art experts who were assembled to look for, find and rescue masterpieces of world art that had been taken by the Nazis as they marched across France, Belgium and elsewhere.
George Clooney not only starred in the movie, but directed it as well. The art historians were assembled to join the U.S. Army and help track down art stolen by the Nazis and return as much as possible to the rightful owners.
Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett and Jean Dujardin, and Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey fame were chosen by Clooney to join forces with him to locate the treasures.
Described by Clooney as the “most dangerous treasure hunt in history”, millions of priceless paintings, sculptures and other masterpieces and artifacts were in danger of being lost forever as the war was drawing to an end. Value of the masterpieces was in the billions of dollars.
The true story told of the adventure the seven men assembled started in looking for the treasures that had been carted off by Hitler’s army and hidden in caves, behind bricked walls, in castles, in homes of high ranking Nazis, in Swiss Bank Vaults and everywhere else he could stash the stolen masterpieces taken from individuals and museums. Hitler had a plan to put all of them in a single museum in Germany.
Evidently we weren’t the only couple interested in seeing the movie at the theater during an afternoon showing. It was comfortably filled and not a sound was heard from the beginning to the end of the movie. Only once I caught myself before I shouted “No” when the Nazi’s used flame throwers on hundreds of beautiful paintings assembled in a cave to keep the approaching forces from finding and liberating them.
Clooney said it was true that Hitler had said “If I die, destroy everything” and it was taken to mean bridges, railroad tracks and even the masterpieces. But wait, it wasn’t just the Nazi’s that were stealing treasures from countries they marched across. As Germany was falling Germany’s treasures also were being plundered.
Closer to home, it was in early 1990 that Stern Magazine, a leading German publication, broke the story of funds being raised to offer a reward for the return of artifacts taken from a cave in Quendlinburg, East Germany, during World War II. The article listed the value of the missing artifacts at $123.75 million.
The treasures were among Germany’s most famous artwork. The Lutheran church in Quendlinburg had filed suit in Texas to try to recover the collection believed taken to Whitewright, Texas by the late Joe T. Meador, a former Army lieutenant who served in Quendlinburg in 1945. The items had been stored in a mine shaft to keep them safe during World War II bombings.
According to the magazine article American troops were outside Quendlinburg in April 1945. Crates of the art objects had been moved from the church into the cave in February of that year. On April 19, according to the article, American troops moved into town and took over the cave and moved the crates to the courthouse nearby. A German who was present when the crates were moved told a reporter there that he inspected them in the cave and found everything okay. The next time he inspected the crates, some had been opened. Meador was in command of the cave.
The 14 objects taken by Meador included a silver, ivory and gold reliquary from the 9th or 10th century, a 10th century Byzantine rock-crystal flask with sides formed like birds and a liturgical ivory comb inlayed with precious stones from King Henry. It was reported that the treasures also included a lock of hair of the Virgin Mary, and a portion of Christ’s robe that was believed to have been gambled for by the guards at the crucifixion.
In 1990 a Paris art dealer wanted to sell to the Kulturstiftung Museum one of the ninth century pieces for $9 million. The Meador family had inherited the artifacts after Joe Meador died in 1980.
The story is long and confusing, but at least part of the treasure managed to be moved in February 1990 to the First National Bank of Whitewright in Denison at that time. The items were stored in the bank vault. The bank was located one block from the Denison Herald building.
While negotiations between German authorities and the Meador family continued, word was received in early summer that the treasures were going to be moved to the Dallas Museum of Art, where they were to be stored until an agreement could be reached between both sides. Only thing was that the date for the move remained a secret.
Because of the proximity of the bank, we had a clear view of any unusual activity, but we couldn’t just sit and wait and watch, so work went on as usual at both the Herald office and the bank until about noon on Aug. 1 as I started to lunch I notices some unusual activity that looked like two men who could have been plain clothed security guards on the avenue near the bank.
Our reporters were dispatched with cameras to head toward the bank. Photos were taken as members of the Meador family, the bank president and who we later learned was an East German lawyer were seen leaving the bank.
We were told later that the transfer was going smoothly until the local reporters suddenly materialized. The bank president told one of the reporters later, “We attempted a diversion, but it didn’t work.” The hush-hush transfer ran the next day in the newspaper. The bank president said they had been worried about the safety of the individuals and the artifacts because of their value. He said he was relieved to see the treasures disappear down the road toward Dallas.
Our treasure hunt here in Denison wasn’t near as dangerous as “The Monuments Men,” but for a small town in Texas, it did cause a lot of excitement, especially for the reporters who got their photos.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.