In May, Willi Korte, 36, a West German researcher and expert in stolen art, left his apartment in Silver Spring, flew to Dallas, rented a car and drove to a small rural town in northeast Texas, where he spent the afternoon in the public library checking out old phone books.

Two days later, armed only with facts and a will of steel, he appeared unannounced at the First National Bank in Whitewright, Tex., breaking open a long-held secret in this town of 1,760 souls, and splattering its name all over newspapers around the world.

"On May 7th, I stepped into the office of the president of the First National Bank, introduced myself and said, 'I'm here because of the Quedlinburg treasures,' " recalls Korte, an intense, curly-haired man with a short beard. "I think he was quite surprised about my visit."

"I thought it was a practical joke," says bank President John R. Farley, "until I turned around and saw my colleague's jaw drop."

"It was obvious that there was something to discuss," says Korte.

The following day Farley called to say the bank had engaged counsel and that, due to bank secrecy, Korte would have to talk with them.

Four Texas law firms have been talking ever since.

Such high adventure -- including a proffered movie contract -- seems unlikely for an entrepreneurial historian and researcher who, for the past several years, has spent most days poring over U.S. Army records at the National Archives and most nights in a small rented apartment in Silver Spring, while his family was home in Munich. The most basic facts of his life, such as where he actually lives and how many children he has, remain a mystery even after hours of conversation. "He's very secretive," says Kenneth Alford, a Richmond bank vice president and amateur stolen-art sleuth.

"He's a freelance historian, and tries to open new projects to subsidize his living," says Klaus C. Maurice, who heads the private West German Cultural Foundation of the States, which is coordinating the Quedlinburg case.

"He's a gambler," adds Maurice, "but he's on a winning streak."

Gamble or not, it was Korte's single-minded determination that cracked one of the most important art thefts since World War II: the lost Quedlinburg treasures, a small-scale but priceless collection that includes two rare medieval manuscripts, a jeweled reliquary with ivory carvings, and several rock-crystal and ivory objects. They apparently were taken from a mine shaft in which they had been hidden by the Lutheran church of Quedlinburg during the final days of World War II. A few days after American troops occupied the area in 1945, the treasures disappeared.

Within days after Korte's arrival in Whitewright, the story started unraveling, and by June 14, when it broke with remarkable detail in the New York Times, it was revealed that for 35 years, the objects had been in the possession of Joe T. Meador, an art-loving Army first lieutenant stationed with the 87th Armored Field Artillery, which had occupied Quedlinburg in 1945 and had been assigned, briefly, to guard the treasures of the local church, properly called the Stiftskirche Domgemeinde.

Meador, who apparently simply mailed the items home and often showed them to visitors, died in 1980 at age 64, leaving the thorny (and apparently, for him, tormenting) problem of ownership to his heirs: a brother, Jack, who ran the family hardware store, and a sister, Jane Meador Cook, who is married to a dentist in Mesquite, Tex. They placed the objects in safe-deposit boxes in Whitewright and Dallas sometime after Meador's death, according to the family's attorneys. Prior to that, they were kept in the house that Meador shared with his mother or in the hardware store's safe.

They were in the bank vaults when Korte arrived, and he got to see and photograph the objects soon after hiring the Washington-Dallas law firm of Andrews & Kurth on behalf of the 450-member Quedlinburg church. They filed a lawsuit against Meador, Cook and the Whitewright bank for return of the works and obtained a restraining order to prevent the objects from being moved or sold until the matter is settled.

Meanwhile, Korte has been spending most of his time in Dallas, working with lawyers to make decisions on behalf of the church and, as he puts it, "trying not to screw up."

"I told somebody at the {West} German Embassy yesterday, the country will just have to trust me on this one."

Man on a Mission Last weekend, during a temporary lull in the proceedings, Korte came back to Silver Spring to check his mail, brief officials at the West German Embassy and work on his expense account.

He also realized he hadn't paid his rent. "My life is full of highs and lows," he says, making a beeline for the only sunny corner in a Bethesda hotel coffee shop. "I am always inside ...

"I have to sit there with the lawyers and make certain decisions on behalf of the church because I'm the only official representative of the church, which is way off and doesn't have the foggiest idea about a civil case in a federal court in Texas," explains Korte, who says he has a law degree as well as a PhD in history. "There's a minister there, but he has other things to do. He just hopes and trusts me with the mission."

Mission, in fact, is an apt word to describe the intensity Korte seems to bring to his work. "My life is my work," he says. "I don't consider it any great sacrifice.

"I believe in certain things. My family has been greatly affected by the course of German history and has suffered numerous great losses, especially by the Third Reich and its consequences," says Korte, whose mother's family was wiped out during the war.

"I can sympathize with other people who have suffered losses, and I can sympathize with their attempts to recover them.

"But I'm quite aware of the context in which this happened -- why Americans were in Germany, the circumstances at the end of the war. I didn't come here to pass judgment on anybody. I didn't conduct my investigation to pass judgment on anybody. My concern is to return these items to where they came from.

"I have no problem with the culture of Beethoven, but I have a clear opinion on the Nazi period," says Korte. "I haven't only worked on art; I've made myself available for other people and causes when it came to other aspects of the Third Reich. I've spent some time on war crimes -- including recent ones.

"None of this could have been done before the wall and the borders opened," he says of the Quedlinburg case. "It would have been a purely academic exercise. West Germany had no political or legal reason or justification to do anything on behalf of this East German church; it would have gotten the church in trouble with the East German government, and West Germany in trouble with East Germany.

"Thus the church could authorize me to do this, but they don't care who pays my expenses," he says in reply to a question about whose payroll he is on. "All I can say now is that obviously the church cannot do this on its own; it needs support from outside sources, either German government agencies or cultural institutions, or private funds."

According to his colleague Klaus Goldmann, curator of a museum of ancient art in Berlin, Korte has himself advanced the funds necessary to do what he had to do to pursue the Quedlinburg case. "He couldn't just wait around for the officials to make up their minds."

Foundation Director Maurice, whose patience and budget have obviously been stretched beyond capacity in coordinating the effort Korte launched, sees it differently. "He's a person who acts without orders or authorization," he says of Korte. "He always initiates things, then says you have to pay. It must be the other way: There must be a written proposal about what is to be done and shall be done, and what the costs will be.

"There must be an institution in this state with enough bureaucrats to do the job; it can't always be done by freelancers, detectives and journalists.

"We will have a meeting next Monday at the Foreign Office in Bonn, and I will try to convince our diplomatic corps to do the work," says Maurice. "It can't be a private investigator who tells us what to do. This should be by our central government. Korte has made a marvelous argument that our government has to act, and not just a private person. What are all those diplomats doing in Washington?"

Responds Korte with a laugh: "It is certainly true that I did not submit a proposal on Quedlinburg. And of course I took a personal risk going to Texas. But my great moment came when I went into the bank in Whitewright and saw those objects. That took care of my risk.

"My job was really seeing these things in the bank vault," says Korte. "The rest is up to the attorneys."

A System and Serendipity Korte credits his recovery of the Quedlinburg treasures to luck as well as hard work. "When I walked into the bank, I didn't know who had taken the works, only that they were probably there," he says. "Anything could have happened: Mr. Farley could have just told me to get the hell out of his office; I had no credentials, nothing, except some pre-1945 photographs of the missing items from Quedlinburg and a newspaper clipping with my name on it."

Farley says Korte also had a calling card with a Silver Spring address. He says he was not impressed.

What Korte did have, however, was a strong surmise that the works were in this country. For he had been working for years at the Archives studying World War II U.S. Army and occupation records -- primarily for the the Foundation for Prussian Culture, which is charged with locating and repatriating important works of art and historical objects that disappeared from Berlin museums during and after World War II.

"My job had nothing to do with Quedlinburg, in the sense that my concern in the past has been the losses suffered by the Berlin museums," says Korte.

"But those Archives records gave us an opportunity to start doing some systematic work on the U.S. occupation forces, which are important because the area around the Elbe River, where a number of the major collections from the Berlin museums were stored -- in salt mines, copper mines, various kinds of mines and caves very good for storing works of art -- was originally conquered, liberated and occupied by U.S. forces.

"It just happened that Klaus Goldmann -- whose museum still suffers the loss of the great Schliemann treasure found in ancient Troy -- had an early interest in looking at these records, and it was Goldmann who first found documents from the late '40s indicating that when the people of Quedlinburg discovered their loss, they had made an effort to recover them through U.S. Army authorities. Then things deteriorated between the Soviets and the Americans, and once there was a West and East Germany it was impossible for the church to do anything."

In 1988, however, the Quedlinburg question came up again, when the most important item in the hoard -- a sumptuous 9th-century Carolingian illuminated manuscript of the Four Gospels, known as the Samuhel-Evangeliar -- turned up on the art market and was offered to a West German foundation for $8 million, a fraction of its worth, which has been placed at upwards of $50 million. Purchase was apparently refused in part because it was obviously stolen, and because Quedlinburg was in East Germany and distinctly out of the foundation's jurisdiction.

In April, however, the Four Gospels manuscript was offered again, this time through a German dealer in Switzerland named Heribert Tenschert, who dreamed up a compromise deal: a $3 million "finder's fee," to be paid by the West German Cultural Foundation of the States, with the understanding that the name of the owners would not be revealed.

Within days after the deal was closed, Korte, with a tip from a New York dealer, had pinpointed a bank in Whitewright as the place where the manuscript had been stored. "Other dealers who had long known where the books came from, but now stood to gain nothing by keeping quiet, were suddenly more willing to talk, and did," he says.

Various clues -- some as vague as an area code that included all of northeast Texas, others as specific as the involvement of a bank -- came together, and by May, Korte had good reason to believe that the rest of the Quedlinburg treasures might also be in Whitewright. "I was lucky," he says. "There was only one bank in town."

The same day his discovery was revealed in the press, the second book from Quedlinburg, this one dated 1513, suddenly appeared with the same German dealer who sold the first, and was on the verge of being sold to the foundation for a $500,000 finder's fee when Korte and the church's attorneys filed the lawsuit and asked for a restraining order on all the items in Whitewright as well as the second manuscript.

Tenschert now says he did not have the book, only an option on the book, and its whereabouts are unknown, but it is presumed to be in a Swiss bank.

The whereabouts of the $3 million paid for the Four Gospels are also unknown.

According to Ely Maurer, assistant legal adviser for cultural property at the State Department, under U.S. law legitimate ownership cannot be achieved through theft, nor can a person who buys or inherits a stolen object, knowing that it is stolen, become a legitimate owner.

"Although relevant statutes of limitation may have passed since the objects were originally stolen," he says, "the U.S. National Stolen Property Act makes the transportation of stolen goods across state or international borders a violation of law."

It has since been confirmed by several sources that the man representing the anonymous sellers in both cases was John S. Torigian, a Houston attorney who had represented the Meador family since the mid-'80s -- until last week, when he suddenly dropped out of the case.

Last week, attorneys for the Quedlinburg church took sworn depositions from both Meador and Cook; they repeatedly invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination in regard to all questions related to the manuscripts or to Torigian. A deposition from Torigian is scheduled to be taken Friday, if the case isn't settled by then.

"We have all kinds of questions for Mr. Torigian," says Korte.

Phone calls to Torigian were not returned.

Until Torigian was replaced, the family had maintained total silence on the matter, contending, in court papers, that the objects were inherited and belonged to them. This week, however, their new attorney, Randal Mathis of Strasburger & Price, said, "I assure you the Meadors would like to see these returned to Germany as part of an overall settlement of the case. What I'm primarily concerned with is how the various laws apply: Texas civil law, or American tax law -- and everything in between."

Meanwhile, Korte is scheduled to go back to Dallas this week when the agenda, he says, includes trying to get the works moved to neutral territory for safekeeping and examination by a German expert, who may be coming soon. Most likely, it will be the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, which has already agreed to care for the items until the case is resolved. Exhibition of the objects has been mentioned by the family and the museum. "I don't think that makes much sense until the matter is resolved," says Korte.

Both Korte and foundation Director Maurice agree on one thing: "What we need is a German cultural commission which will deal with the whole cultural heritage. These things have to be reconstructed and reconnected just like everything else in Germany," says Korte.

"What the future for me in that would be I don't know," he said. "I'm not sure I want to be Germany's man for stolen art.

"But I would like to consolidate my life," says Korte. "My daughter always says, 'Daddy doesn't have a real job, he just does research.' "

If the Quedlinburg works are recovered, Korte says, they will go back to the church, but not until a proper museum setting is provided for them. "These objects were on and around the church altar for a thousand years," he says. "They were not in a museum.

"But times have changed, and now they'll have to have proper climate control, and they'll have to be properly secured.

"Look," says Korte, "I don't want to go through this again three years from now."