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The man with the German accent was on the phone again. Third time today. He wants me to help him find some long-lost treasure. Fat chance.
I was about to put him off for good when he said he knew my New York Times colleague Karl Meyer. Then I figured I had to listen for at least a minute. I mean, that goes with being a reporter.
He said his name was Willi Korte. Pronounced KOR-tay.
"What can I do for you today?" I asked.
"I was told you can help me crack the biggest and longest unsolved art theft of the twentieth century."
I laughed. "Who told you that?
"Never heard of him."
"You were given some U.S. Army documents that Goldmann discovered in a German archive," he said. "Did you read them?"
"I can't swear that I did. But they may be under something here on my nice, clean, well-polished desk."
It was beginning to come back to me. That would be the winter of 1989, and a week or two earlier Karl Meyer, amember of the editorial board of the Times, had returned from atrip to West Germany. He presented me with a handful ofdocuments which he said had been given to him by a WestBerlin museum official. This German—yes, I guess his namewas Klaus Goldmann—said he had found the papers in anarchive dating back to the American occupation of Germany after World War II. Goldmann said the documents might shed light on the long-missing Quedlinburg treasures.
I had only scanned the papers before they melted into the heap of press releases, old telephone messages, notebooks, and sandwich wrappers cluttering my desk. If I remembered rightly, the Quedlinburgtreasures—a collection of supposedly priceless medieval artworks—disappeared from Germany in the final days of World War II in Europe. It was assumed that they had been stolen by an American soldier or soldiers, since U.S. troops were then occupying Quedlinburg, a small city in central Germany. It was also thought possible that in the chaos of the war's end they had been taken by Russian soldiers—or maybe by the Germans themselves.
I asked Willi why they were referred to as treasures. "Isn't that a little melodramatic?"I said. "Like pirate's treasure or something?"
"It's no exaggeration," he replied. "We're not just talking museum-quality. We're talking some of the world's most valuable objects. Several of them are worth more than a van Gogh painting—and those go for $80 million today."
"What the heck are they?"
"Royal gifts," said Willi. "The earliest German kings—Heinrich I and his son Otto—presented them to the cathedral of Quedlinburg as patronage to help cement the loyalty of the local churchmen. Quedlinburg was a very important spot on the map of medieval Europe."
"Two of the treasures are manuscripts—one of them writtenin gold ink—and both are encased in bindings decorated with gold, silver, and precious stones."
"Most of the other pieces are reliquaries," he went on, "that is, containers for ancient Christian relics like splinters of wood from Noah's Ark and drops of milk from the Virgin Mary."
"You gotta be kidding."
"Look, it sounds ridiculous, but in medieval times nobody questioned it. The reliquaries are fantastically shaped bottles and caskets made by the greatest artists of their time. They used the most precious stuff they could get their hands on. They are—what else can you call them?—treasures!"
As he talked, the name Willi Korte began to sound familiar. I recalled that Goldmann had passed along Korte's name and telephone number, explaining that he was a young German researcher who lived in Washington, D.C., and worked for something called the Foundation for Prussian Cultural Heritage, an organization trying to recover artworks the Germans had lost in the war. That was a new twist. Most of the missing art in Europe was stolen by the Nazis. But I guess the Germans lost some, too.
Goldmann had given Willi copies of the same army documents he'd given Karl Meyer to pass along to me. And he suggested we work together.
"If the treasures haven't surfaced since the end of World War II," I said, "how do you know they haven't been lost or destroyed? How do you know somebody didn't melt them down for the gold and silver?"
Willi groaned. The thought appalled him. "It's true," he said. "Nobody has seen these things for half a century. The last one who saw them—not counting the thief—may have been Heinrich Himmler."
"The head of the Gestapo?"
"Yes," said Willi. "Reichsfuhrer SS, he was called. In the old photographs of the Nazi bigwigs, Himmler was always the one wearing black. He had a thing about black leather—big shiny boots, a long black leather coat. If you met him today, you'd say he'd stepped right out of Bloomingdale's!"
I laughed. Willi was growing on me.
"Himmler also had a thing about Quedlinburg," he continued. "He believed he was a reincarnation of Heinrich I, the early German unifier who was buried in Quedlinburg a thousand years ago. Himmler used the treasures to decorate the cathedral and held weird, mystical ceremonies for SS officers there. Quedlinburg was Heinrich Himmler's Camelot."
"Great!" I said laughing. Himmler's Camelot!
"You really should read Goldmann's documents," he said. "Then we can work as partners."
"I'm not the partnering type," I said, "—but look at this! I just found Goldmann's documents on my desk. Ill give them a quick read and get back to you."
I knew I never would.
Willi was amusing, but I sensed that his story wasn't for me. How could I help solve a mystery that nobody else had been able to crack for half a century? Furthermore, considering the way the Nazis behaved in World War II, I wasn't exactly leaping with desire to help their descendants recover their losses. And finally—this was the main reason—I didn't have a whole lot of time on my hands. After nearly two decades as an editor at the Times, I was attempting to return to my first love in the newspaper business and make it as a reporter. The switch from editor to writer is not the usual thing. In this business, it's a truism that aging editors can't write. Once they've served a few years judging the work of others, they seem to lose their dash and swagger. I was determined to prove an exception.
During the first few months in my new job in the cultural news department my stuff appeared on the front page only occasionally. One story concerned the trial of an Indianapolis art dealer with a weakness for stolen antiquities. Another couple of page-one yarns dealt with the perils of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Federal agency that had come under attack for sponsoring the exhibition of several raunchy photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and the eye-poking picture of a crucifix submerged in urine by Andres Serrano. But much of the rest of what I wrote, let's face it, had been editorial landfill. If I wanted to make it as a writer, I didn't need more base hits, I needed a home run.
The best story for me to pursue, I figured, was the campaign against the arts endowment. With international communism a dead issue, the right wing had adopted as part of its mission the protection of the American people from the contamination of art, and it was an open question as to how far they could go with it. The previous summer, Senator Jesse Helms had seized the occasion of a sparsely attended evening session of the Senate to pass an amendment that would prevent the arts endowment from sponsoring anything that people like himself did not find soothing.
And now, I had just learned that an upstart congressman from southern California named Dana Rohrabacher—with serious money from the far right in back of him—was organizing a campaign to stampede the House of Representatives into adopting a similar resolution. A vote in the next day or two was likely. And if both houses of Congress adopted these restrictions, it would be the end of the arts endowment. No self-respecting artist would accept a grant from a Federal agency that could permit his or her work to be judged by a bunch of vote-hungry congressmen with the outlook of a vice squad.
I sent a memo to my editor, Marv Siegel, asking permission to spend a day or two in Washington covering the story.
Soon after my talk with Willi Korte, I was seated at my desk reading one of Rohrabacher's rambling orations in the Congressional Record. Well, the fellow is no Demosthenes, and my mind wandered. I imagined an ancient, metal-strapped chest in a dingy attic. A man, bent with age, clumpsup a flight of stairs. He makes for the chest and opens it. Inside is a collection of gleaming, fantastically shaped artworks, and tucked among them, neatly folded, is a black leather armband emblazoned with a Nazi swastika. Ugh!
My ringing telephone brought me back to reality. It was Marv, approving the Washington trip.
"I'll be on the next shuttle," I said, and began stuffing notes and documents relating to the arts endowment into my briefcase. I checked my watch. If I caught a cab in Times Square immediately, I could make the noon flight. No time to call home—I'd call my wife from the airport.
I made a beeline for the elevator, but just as the door began to slide open, I froze. Slowly, the elevator door closed in front of me. I raced back to my desk, scooped up the copies of Klaus Goldmann's U.S. Army documents and scampered down three flights of stairs and out into Times Square.
On the plane, I dug the Goldmann documents out of my briefcase. There were five of them: single-spaced, typewritten reports dated from 1945 to 1948. In blunt military jargon, they told how the Germans, fearful of Allied bombing raids, had hidden a collection of medieval treasures in a cave on the outskirts of Quedlinburg. When American forces arrived in the city on April 18, 1945, according to one document, the Burgermeister surrendered Quedlinburg and told the American commander about the cave and what was in it.
A joint delegation of Americans and Germans then inspected the cave and found all the valuables "intact and present." A guard post was established at the entrance to the cave, and with that the Americans continued about their business of rounding up German soldiers trying to avoid capture by dressing in civilian clothes. A few days later, a second team of inspectors entered the cave. They were horrified by what they saw. Several of the crates containing the Quedlinburg treasures had been ripped open and at least a dozen of the most important objects were gone.
One document provided an inventory of the missing items. They included an "extremely valuable" casket decorated with gold, silver, ivory, and precious stones; two medieval bound manuscripts, in gold and silver covers studded with gems; and several crystal reliquaries carved in the shapes of birds, turrets, a heart, and other exotic forms.
Another one of the documents recommended that the theft be reported to the FBI. Still another named the unit that guarded the cave as "Detachment Thirty-five, DMGO, Military Government," and proposed that all members of that unit be interrogated. If any such investigation took place, the documents did not record it. The last of them indicated that American troops soon withdrew from Quedlinburg and the area was then occupied by the Red Army. Eventually, the city would become part of East Germany.
I stared at the ceiling of the jetliner. The vision of the old man in the attic returned. Then I saw newspaper headlines swimming through the air.... GREATEST WORLD WAR II ART THEFT SOLVED AT LAST ... BRILLIANT DETECTIVE WORK BY TIMES REPORTER ... I closed my eyes and enjoyed the fantasy.
In Washington, I interviewed Rohrabacher at his office on Capitol Hill, then raced to the Times Washington bureau in the old Army-Navy Club at 16th and I Streets and bashed out a story about how Rohrabacher planned to tack the language of the Helms amendment onto a House appropriations bill scheduled to be voted on the next day. Marv gave it three columns with a big picture of Rohrabacher under the headline HELMS AMENDMENT IS FACING A MAJOR TEST IN CONGRESS.
Next morning I was up early. "The Capitol," I said to my cab driver. My mind was totally focused on the battle shaping up in the House of Representatives, but after proceeding for a block or two, I suddenly got an itch. "Have you ever been to the National Archives branch in Suitland, Maryland?" I asked the driver.
"Why, sure," he said. "It's just a couple miles outside of the District."
The tires squealed as we made an illegal U-turn and sped off to Suitland.
I'd been there once before, so I recognized the squat red brick storehouse that contains—among other things—U.S. Army unit record,s going back to World War I. I wanted to see if I could find the records of Detachment Thirty-five, the military government unit named in the Goldmann documents as having occupied Quedlinburg at the time the treasures disappeared. If I could find the detachment's personnel roster, I'd have a list of suspects!
With the help of an intense, bearded archivist who told me his name was Richard Boylan, I dug into the files. Reading these musty documents tugged at my memory. Years before, I'd served most of a two-year hitch in the army as the editor of a weekly newspaper called the Fort Devens Dispatch. That experience had given me command of army jargon, and I was amused to see that I hadn't lost my fluency. I knew, for example, the difference between NATOUSA, MTOUSA, and ETOUSA (U.S. Army commands in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and Europe, respectively), and I remembered that OMGUS is not a Hindu chant but the acronym for Office of Military Government, United States.
Unfortunately, neither Boylan nor I got anywhere with Detachment Thirty-five. There simply wasn't any record of a military government unit filed under that name. In order to locate any surviving records of Detachment Thirty-five, I realized I would need more information than the Goldmann documents provided.
I hightailed it to Capitol Hill and was able to squeeze into one of the narrow wooden pews in the press gallery of the House of Representatives, just in time to watch Rohrabacher's amendment go down to defeat by a vote of 264 to 153. The enemies of artistic freedom had taken a whipping, though this would hardly be the end of the matter.
I hurried back to the Times Washington Bureau, filed my story on the outcome of the battle and was delighted to hear Marv tell me that it would appear on the front page above the fold the next morning. Not a homer, perhaps, but a solid double, maybe even a three-bagger. In an expansive mood, I caught a cab for the National Airport, only to miss my flight home by about one minute. Crestfallen, I watched the big silver bird fling itself into the hazy afternoon sky.
I sat down in a cramped phone booth and toyed with the idea of calling Willi Korte. I asked myself: since Willi lives in Washington, couldn't he continue to search the National Archives for any record of Detachment Thirty-five?
No way, I protested silently. With everything I know about military record-keeping, if I can't find any trace of Detachment Thirty-five in the Archives what help can I expect from a foreigner?
On the other hand, I thought, I've got time to kill.
I fished in my briefcase for the envelope on which I'd written Willi's telephone number. My fingers pecked it into the instrument's touch-tone pad. Willi answered at once, as if he'd been waiting for my call.
"I'm in Washington," I said cautiously, "and I thought I'd touch base with you before I catch the shuttle back to New York. How's your investigation going?"
Willi was exuberant. He said he had just located a World War II veteran named Dean Dillard in North Carolina. Dillard recalled having driven through Quedlinburg during the last days of the fighting. As his unit was leaving the town, Dillard had said, he heard a rumor about some stolen treasure, although he could no longer remember the details.
"I'm getting close," Willi said. "Real close!"
Then he asked how my investigation was going.
"What do you mean my investigation?" I sputtered. 'I never agreed to work on the case."
"I thought by now you would have solved it," he teased.
I acknowledged I'd read the Goldmann documents and had noticed the mention of Detachment Thirty-five. Since I was in Washington, I said, I dropped by the National Archives, but came away frustrated because I couldn't find a single reference to the unit.
Willi laughed. "You'll never find it," he said. "Most of those military government units weren't in existence long enough to keep records. What you can find is that on 23 April 1945 a command post was set up in Quedlinburg by the Fourth Cav."
"You mean the Fourth Cavalry Division?" I asked, showing off my military learning.
"Nah," he said, "the only cavalry divisions were First and Second. First was in the Pacific, and Second was in North Africa. Fourth Cav is the Fourth Cavalry Group, Mechanized, an element of the Seventh Corps."
"So you checked the Group records?"
"Sure," Willi rattled on, leaving me open-mouthed, "but they don't mention Quedlinburg. However; if you assume the Fourth Cav reported about the theft to a higher headquarters you go to the records of Seventh Corps, which is what I did two weeks ago. No luck there either. So now I figure the investigation was handled at a lower level, and there you find that several smaller units were attached to Fourth Cav Group in the vicinity of Quedlinburg—the Fourth Cav Reconnaissance Squadron, Mechanized; the Third Battalion of the Thirty-ninth Infantry Regiment; the Eighty-seventh Armored Field Artillery Battalion; the 759th Light Tank Battalion and the 474th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion. All of these units kept records which may contain information about the theft."
"Hey, when did you graduate from West Point?"
"Don't worry," he snapped. "They don't accept the foreign-born."
Willi continued. "I found a report in the S-3 Journal saying that at ten minutes before midnight on 20 April 45 the Fourth Cav Recon Squad reported the discovery of a cave at 339590—those are geographical coordinates—which they describe as a large room containing statues and crates of oil paintings and other works of art."
"So you found the unit stationed in Quedlinburg!" I said.
"I found one of them," he replied. "The theft could have been investigated by any of these small units—there's no way of telling without reading all of their records. For now I'm checking the names of the officers of the Fourth Cav Recon Squad, and I'm trying to find out where those guys are today.
"The Vets' Administration here in Washington should be able to help you," I said earnestly.
"They won't give you the time of day!" Willi snorted. "They say everything you want is protected by the Privacy Act. However, by a considerable amount of lying"—he chuckled naughtily—"I figured out how to get what I need. I call the Vets Administration offices in small states like Maryland and New Hampshire and tell them I'm trying to find these World War II vets because they inherited some money. When I say that, they're as nice as they can be!
"The problem is," he continued, "all the veterans I've tracked down are either dead or couldn't, or wouldn't, tell me much." He laughed. "It's a little crazy—trying to find witnesses among a group of suspects!"
"Willi," I said, scratching my head with wonder, "how the hell did you learn so much about the U.S. Army? I mean, you're a German!"
"Maybe I'm overeducated," he said with a laugh.
I began to wonder if I'd fallen in with a guy who worked for a West German intelligence agency, maybe the German equivalent of the CIA? I liked Willi, but he scared me a little.
"Suppose you actually get the thief on the telephone," I said. "If he's kept his secret all these years, what makes you think he'd open up now?"
"The thief may not be the one who opens up," he said. "It may be someone who saw the thief. It may be someone who thinks he was cheated by the thief. People talk for a lot of reasons.
"This is what I believe," he went on. "If I squeeze the documents, I can get the names of the soldiers who were stationed in Quedlinburg. If I get the names, I can find the people. And if I find the people, one of them will open up."
"Willi," I said. "You just got yourself a partner."
"The bride is blushing."
"Frankly, I don't know whether you're a German agent or what the hell you are," I said, "but, dammit, you know more about the U.S. Army than even I do and I'm a native son. Stick with what you're doing. Squeeze the documents, like you say. Meantime, I'll work through the art world. Then we'll compare notes."
"That's what I was hoping you'd say!" Willi chirped.
"I'm going to start with a New York City dealer in rare books and manuscripts named Roland Folter," I said. "Goldmann passed along his name with the explanation that he'd heard Folter had been asked once to appraise a couple of medieval manuscripts that could have been from Quedlinburg."
"Yeah," said Willi. "Goldmann's inventory of missing treasures includes two manuscripts."
"I'm willing to share information," I said, "but remember this. I work for a newspaper. And I'm the one who says when I publish whatever I want to publish. Verstehen?"
That stung. Willi didn't like being talked down to, and he especially didn't like being spoken to in German as if he couldn't understand English.
He registered his annoyance by rattling off a hail of German that was incomprehensible to me.
"What is that supposed to mean?"
A long pause. Then he chuckled. "Let's boogie!" said Willi.