UFTRUNGEN, Germany -- Deep beneath a green hillside, amid the flutter of bats and the chill of subterranean pools, the solution to a 50-year-old mystery lies buried in a cave's wartime rubble.
Its long-running cast of characters includes gaunt slave laborers, frantic Nazi officers, Soviet troops with dynamite, inquisitive East German secret police and, most recently, German researchers and American salvage experts.
At the heart of the mystery is this question: Did the Nazis drive truckloads of priceless art into this old cave, called the Heimkehle, or are the buried trucks empty, merely the refuse of a destroyed empire?
American salvage specialist Norman Scott arrived in Germany yesterday and hopes to dig up -- literally -- the answer. But his search will be only the latest foray in an international treasure hunt that has widened and gained momentum in the wake of the Cold War. With access open to archives, sites and individuals that were once off-limits, people such as Mr. Scott have been able to pursue new leads and gather new clues from old documents and even older soldiers.
The result, Mr. Scott said, is that "there are so many projects like this I could spend the rest of my life and the rest of my children's lives doing them."
As if to prove his point, after he is finished at the Heimkehle he plans to move on to other sites in eastern Germany. They include the grounds of a castle where he hopes his Florida-based company, Global Explorations, will dig its way into a cellar that no one knew existed until his X-ray equipment indicated hidden chambers.
Then his team hopes to move on to the Russian city of Kaliningrad (known during World War II as the German city of Koenigsburg), where he hopes to find the remains of the legendary "Amber Chamber," an ornate room, knickknacks and all, entirely fashioned out of amber in the early 18th century. Originally it was a gift to the Russian royal family from King Frederick I of Prussia. It has been missing since 1945.
Such hunts are the long-term results of Nazi Germany's plunder of art as its armies swept across Europe in World War II. Trains and trucks hauled millions of paintings, sculptures, icons and other items back to Germany.
But as Allied forces regained the territory and approached the German border, Hitler ordered the loot underground along with Germany's own holdings. The art work ended up in thousands of sites, including mines, castles, monasteries, cellars and bunkers. Some of the most valuable pieces were stored in giant anti-aircraft towers around Berlin.
Soviet armies invading from the east were intent on doing their own looting, partly to get back their own museum losses but also as a way of reaping "war reparations."
The American and British forces approaching from the west dispatched "monuments officers" to sort out the puzzle as each glorious cache was uncovered. They hoped to return as much as possible to rightful homes, even when that happened to be a German museum.
But in the confusion of those days, security wasn't always what it should have been. Shipments were rushed and re-routed, paperwork was occasionally sketchy. Items went missing, sometimes by the trainload. Also, most of the inventory lists compiled then have been destroyed. And, presumably, some Nazi storage sites were never found.
"You never can really say what will be found," said Dr. Klaus Goldmann, chief curator of Berlin's Museum for Pre- and Early History, whose 24-year search for missing art treasures borders on obsession.
Dr. Goldmann's phone rings regularly with new tips -- some of them inevitably from crackpots or con artists. His quest has taken him to the far corners of Germany and Russia for interviews with aging survivors of the era.
One told him of midnight shipments of boxcars filled with suspiciously narrow crates. Another -- a former flak gunner aboard a train -- told him recently of witnessing a loading operation from a barge to a train, directed by a one-armed civilian who stood on the bank of the canal. It was an almost unmistakable reference to the man designated by Hitler to run the art evacuation project.
Dr. Goldmann also searches archives for long-neglected documents and charts, ever hoping to find an aerial photograph of Berlin from a key span of days in the spring of 1945. He scans the photos for telltale barges and boxcars, searching for clues to what became of art-laden caravans that never reached their destinations.
Plenty of people are skeptical of the value of such work, including those who have done their share of archival digging. Willi Korte, a German researcher now living in Silver Spring, prefers tracking down looted art piece by piece, via the international auction market, or through vague allusions in old U.S. military documents.
In 1990 these tactics led him to the long-lost Quedlinburg Treasures, a small but valuable collection of medieval manuscripts and jewelry. He found them in a small town in Texas, where the heirs of former soldier Joe T. Meador were trying to sell the remaining pieces. Mr. Meador, it seemed, had stolen the items from Quedlingburg's old church in 1945, then mailed them home by regular Army post.
Mr. Korte is now tracking down items looted by U.S. soldiers from Sundausen Castle, the storage site of Nuremberg's vast collection of medieval parchments, vellums and illuminated manuscripts. He has found items in California, Tennessee, Illinois and Wisconsin.
But he has little use for the more grand, more romantic sort of treasure hunts favored by Mr. Scott and Dr. Goldmann.
"I've told [Dr. Goldmann] that I've never really had use for a shovel," Mr. Korte said. "I've heard these stories for years -- old Nazis sitting on treasures and meeting on Hitler's birthday, that kind of thing. But all these stories of undiscovered secret repositories from the dying days of the Reich, or of trucks being driven into tunnels in the hill, you can never really confirm them."
The treasure hunters are goaded past such doubts by breakthroughs such as last November's discovery of the long-lost "Trojan Gold." This hoard of ancient jewelry, vases, goblets and other items was brought to Germany in 1884 by archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, then locked away for safekeeping in 1939. The Soviets found it in an anti-aircraft tower near the Berlin Zoo and shipped it to Moscow, then destroyed the tower and spread the word that everything inside had been destroyed.
Dr. Goldmann never bought the tale, and spent years following leads. Last year, two sleuthing Russian art historians found the collection gathering dust in a secret vault of Moscow's Pushkin Museum.
The discovery prompted speculation about other "destroyed" sites and "lost" trainloads. That's one reason there is so much interest in the Heimkehle cave.
"In 1945," Mr. Scott explained, "a train left Berlin with 1,250 pieces of art on it. The train went south of Magdeburg, but never reached its destination and never was accounted for. We believe its contents may be hidden in this cave, and since then has been covered by rubble."
Mr. Scott's company has probed the site with "ground-penetrating radar scans," he said, and found evidence of buried trucks or train cars. A 1994 trip even uncovered parts of three cars, but the work was halted by environmental concerns -- namely, the large colonies of bats that live in the cave, flitting and roosting above numerous pools of frigid water that, when illuminated, are a striking bright green.
"We have a witness, or at least, the father of a friend who was in charge of the mines then," Dr. Goldmann said, "and he had detailed knowledge and gave us a little sketch. He said you must first go underwater, and then the road goes up into a tunnel where the crates are. The story is more than plausible, but "
But, for one thing, this man will no longer go into the cave himself. He's scared of the bats. Mr. Scott also believes some locals will do anything to stop the project.
"Anytime we try to do something like this we run across problems with these ex-Stasi [former East German secret police] members and ex-Nazis. They're aware of these depots and storage places, so when we get close to an area we start getting all kinds of pressures."
L Of course, even the best of leads sometimes turn up nothing.
For a while, Mr. Scott and Dr. Goldmann believed the Amber Chamber might be beneath the bricks and mortar of Adolf-Hitler-Platz, now known as Karl-Marx-Platz, in the east German city of Weimar.
A local retiree, Hans Stadelmann, concluded after research that wartime bunkers below the platz may have become the hiding place for the wartime art collection of Erich Koch, who was military governor of East Prussia (in what is now Poland) during the war.
Further evidence convinced Dr. Goldmann that Mr. Stadelmann was wrong, although Mr. Scott believes there may yet be something of value beneath there. But now the platz is about to be covered by a construction project.
Other sites may already have been searched by East German authorities, Dr. Goldmann said.
In 1981, for example, they dug up art-filled crates from a field 60 miles from Berlin, part of the wartime plunder of Nazi Air Marshall Hermann Goering, who was executed for war crimes. They were led to the site by an aging soldier who had once guarded the Goering estate. He'd secretly sketched some of the items as well as four rough treasure maps.
That kind of find only means there is probably more to be uncovered, the treasure hunters say.
"I think people are going to be finding this stuff for decades and decades," Mr. Scott said.