The trial that promised to be the most closely watched US prosecution of defendants accused of trafficking in World War II loot is almost sure not to happen. In a surprise ruling, a federal judge has dismissed charges against two elderly Texans who sold medieval manuscripts and other valuable works that their brother had seized at the end of the war.
The highly publicised case involves the treasure from the town church of Quedlinburg in the former East Germany. Works that included a jewelled ninth-century manuscript, a sixteenth-century prayer book and gem-studded reliquaries from the town’s Schatzkammer were sold back to Germany in 1990 for a total of $2.75 million by dealers who had bought the objects from Jack Meador of Whitewright, Texas and Jane Meador Cook of Mesquite Texas.
The pair claimed to have been left the objects by their brother, Joe Meador, who died in 1980. US authorities maintain that Joe Meador stole the treasure from a cave near Quedlinburg while he was a US soldier there in World War II and smuggled them back to America. Mr Meador was part of an army unit whose mission was to protect the treasure.
The heirs and the lawyer who represented them to dealers were accused of conspiring to sell stolen property. They faced sentences of up to ten years in federal prison and fines as high as $250,000. The case drew intense scrutiny, since it was the first prosecution since the immediate post-war years in which federal authorities devoted substantial resources toward investigating the traffic in war loot. Mr Meador, who ran a hardware business in a rural Texas town, also led a flamboyant secret life in Dallas’s gay circles, where he is said to have shown off his “treasures.” Mr Meador is also thought to have financed his adventures by selling off some of his war loot.
To the chagrin of the prosecutors, the decision from the bench which ended a long investigation was based on a technicality. The US attorneys filed their indictment one day late, said the judge, who determined that the statute of limitations had expired. His ruling put an end to some curious legal manoeuvering by both sides.
Over the past year, prosecutors had succeeded in convincing the judge to extend the five-year statute of limitations, arguing that they needed more assistance from the German government in documenting the case against the Meadors and their lawyer, John Torigian. According to US law, however, once a foreign government has provided all the help requested, the time limit on the statute begins to count down again, hence the dismissal.
For their part, the defendants argued through their lawyers that the government’s case was weak from the start and that they had complied with the law when they explored the art market to sell the Quedlinburg works.
Dick DeGuerin, a Houston lawyer who represented Torigian, maintained that the prosecution was politically motivated and called it a strategy to put pressure on other persons in the US holding war loot.
“Someone is trying to make an example of this case”, DeGuerin told the Houston Chronicle after the decision was made, “There is a lot of stolen art out there that needs to be returned, and that’s a good message. However, this case doesn’t fit that message”.
“I think it is very clear that the US government wants to prosecute people who knowingly possess or try to sell loot from World War II. The technical difficulties encountered in this prosecution don’t change that”, said Constance Lowenthal of the International Foundation for Art Research.
The Meadors are not yet out of the legal woods. The US attorney’s office has requested a review of the criminal decision, and the heirs face an investigation by the Internal Revenue Service. If that results in a prosecution, the Meadors could be saddled with fines and penalties that have been estimated as high as $50 million, a sum that could discourage any future dealing in World War II loot.