The Lutheran Church in Quedlinburg, East Germany, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Dallas yesterday demanding return of medieval artwork believed to have been taken by a U.S. Army officer during World War II and now held in a Texas bank.

After hearing oral arguments by telephone, U.S. District Judge Sidney A. Fitzwater yesterday barred movement of the church treasures without a court order.

Fitzwater also ordered that representatives of the German church be allowed to take an inventory of the cache, which had been hidden in a mine shaft during World War II. The artwork disappeared in 1945, shortly after American forces occupied the medieval castle town.

Joe T. Meador, then an Army first lieutenant who was among the American forces entering Quedlinburg in April 1945, is believed to have stolen the artworks. After his death in 1980, his brother and sister, Jack Meador of Whitewright, Tex., and Jane Meador Cook of Mesquite, obtained the cache and stored at least some of it in a vault of the First National Bank in Whitewright.

The Meadors apparently sold at least two of the pieces, bejeweled illuminated manuscripts from the 10th and 11th centuries, earlier this year.

Jack Meador refused to comment on the lawsuit.

An official with the U.S. State Department said the lawsuit was filed primarily because negotiations for return of the collection had reached an impasse over the weekend. The negotiations apparently stalled when the Meadors' lawyer, John Torigian of Houston, refused to allow the Germans to photograph and inventory the pieces still in Texas.

"There was a threat that the art objects were going to be sent out of the country to Switzerland, which has laws that would make it more difficult to gain recovery," said Ely Maurer, a State Department assistant legal adviser for cultural property.

FBI agents in Dallas launched a preliminary inquiry into the theft last week, but one agent said yesterday that it still was unclear whether criminal charges could be brought against anyone involved in the case.

"The statute of limitations for interstate transportation of stolen property is five years. That's what we generally use in prosecution of art theft cases," said the agent, who asked not to be identified. "In this case, they have outlived the statute."

International treaties governing theft of art and antiquities have a 30-year statute of limitations, he said.

Also complicating the case is the fact that a transaction in which at least one of the illuminated manuscripts was sold this year took place in Switzerland.

"In Switzerland, they have some kind of statute that protects dealers in this kind of situation," he said. "There's really no way to trace it {the transaction} forward or backward for us.

"It's really unique. One of the problems is that this is something wrapped up in treaties, international agreements. It's not like a simple theft case," he said. "And if it were a simple theft case, we're years too late."

Maurer said the State Department would encourage criminal prosecution in the case even if the family agreed to return the remaining artworks to the German church.

He said there was ample circumstantial evidence that the family knew for some time that the art was stolen.

"They were trying to sell it to art specialists who wouldn't touch it because it was stolen." he said.

"In addition to having the property, they've gotten finder's fees. They have had some gain in this to which they're not entitled," he said.