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The Van Gogh Operas, and the 9th-c Gospel of Quedlinburg

1990, a year of hope, a year of remembrance, a year when treasures were returned to their home.

Gone from the world are Jim Henson (Muppet Maker), Roald Dahl (children’s author), Greta Garbo (I vant to be alone), and composers Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. Communism begins to crumble in Mongolia, Bulgaria, and Romania, and Lech Walesa is elected president of Poland after two decades of fighting for the rights of workers, starting in the shipyards of Gdansk, and ending with worldwide support for Solidarity. Yugoslavia seems about to follow, but instead of moving towards a stable democracy this beautiful country decides instead to rip itself apart, strip itself down into its component parts and start fighting each other to the death. Genocide and ethnic cleansing follow in one of the most brutal wars Europe has ever seen.

On a cheerier note, it is the one hundredth birthday of Rose Kennedy, still alive thirty seven years after the assassination of her son, JFK, rocked the world. And it is the one hundredth anniversary of Van Gogh’s death, and there is no doubt that he would have been absolutely astonished/horrified/driven mad all over again to learn that this occasioned the creation of not one but two operas telling his life story in song: Rautavaara’s Vincent in Finland, and Jan van Vlijmens’ Un malheureux vêtu de Noir in the Netherlands. Coincidentally, Van Gogh’s famous portrait of Dr Gachet, confiscated by Heinrich Göring during WWII, is finally recovered and sold at auction for a staggering 136 million Deutschmarks. Vincent would have laughed his socks off!

And there’s more good news on the recovered treasure front, which makes rather bizarre reading, and indeed has had several books written about it since. It all began in the city of Quedlinburg in East Germany, founded in 922 by Henry I The Fowler, as he was known, and became a favourite hanging-out place for the Saxon Emperors, who also started up an Abbey that is still there today in the form of the church of St Servatius. And it was from St Servatius that our treasures were removed and placed into a mineshaft to keep them safe during World War II, amongst them the incredibly ancient Samuhel Gospel, a 9th-c illuminated manuscript bound in jewel-encrusted covers.

(Click this link for pictures: The Americans were there at the time, doing their bit to help, and it was while they were helping that someone helped themselves, and the gospel, amongst other valuable objects, went missing. The authorities lodged bitter complaints with the US Army, but were told there was no possible to way to know who was on guard at the mineshaft at the time of the treasures’ disappearance, despite one soldier in particular being seen coming out of the mine with several packages rather obviously secreted about his person.

Jump forward to the year of our story, to April 1990, when the Samuhel Gospel reappeared and was sold at auction to the Cultural Foundation in Berlin. And now the true story of the Quedlinburg treasures begins to unravel, German investigators tracking everything back to one Lieutenant Joe Meader, who had returned to Texas from the war and worked the rest of his days in the family hardware store.

He’d taken those treasures, no doubting it, but kept them all to himself in the Aladdin’s Cave of his garage, and never told anyone about them. And they were still in the garage when he died in 1980, where they were found by his surviving brother and sister, who might not have been the brightest sparks in the fire but realised these fabulous objects hadn’t been bought at a boot sale. They spent a few years trying to figure out how to slip them into the lucrative art market, and the moment they did they were discovered and prosecution followed. But all was not so straightforward, and the art world was shocked and horrified to learn that the statute of limitations in Texas was only two years long, and the Meaders could not be prosecuted. More bad news followed when the Meaders then extorted almost $3 million from Germany in exchange for the stolen treasures of Quedlinburg; Then the good news, as the Meaders were next charged with conspiracy to sell stolen goods; Then the bad news, as the charges were dismissed on technicalities; Then the good news, when they were finally brought to book by the Inland Revenue (God Bless them!) demanding $50 million from the Meader estate for taxes, penalties and interest. All fun and horribly complicated legal games, but at last the Gospel of Samuhel, which had survived the rise and fall of empires, a multitude of wars, and the attentions of ex-Lieutenant Joe Meader and his meddling brother and sister, finally made it back it home.

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