The objects are reliquaries from the Dark Ages, sacred containers housing what are said to be the physical remains of saints. One is a crystal carved into the shape of a mitre. The other is a hollow gold cross. Not necessarily distinctive, as far as reliquaries go, but they are valuable, perhaps worth millions of dollars each. And as far as Robert Edsel knows, they could be in your attic. Or your mother’s attic. With the last of our World War II veterans now leaving us, more and more stolen objects from the war are turning up as estates are settled. If you find one of the reliquaries, though, please don’t put it on eBay. Call Edsel instead. It would be much better to return it to its rightful owner.
Robert Edsel’s specialty is finding and returning artifacts and culturally significant items missing since the Nazi era. He calls his work the great final chapter of World War II. He is founder and president of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, based in Dallas. The name of his organization comes from a heroic, if somewhat oddball, group of GIs responsible for rescuing more than 5 million cultural objects stolen by the Nazis. Edsel has made it his mission to tell their story and to continue their work by finding what’s still missing and sending it home. His work has also led to two books and a documentary film, which is why on March 1 he will receive the Texas Medal of Arts in a biennial awards ceremony that recognizes the state’s most outstanding artists and philanthropists.
Though Edsel is in his 50s and his hair has gone white, he looks and carries himself with a youthful intensity like he could still be in his 30s. Efficient and directed, he recounts the skepticism he meets with the glee of a man used to having the last laugh.