Skip to main content

30 of the world's most valuable treasures that are still missing

Lost treasures

Ark of the Covenant

(Image credit: Alamy)

Throughout history, fantastic treasures from various cultures have been stolen or otherwise gone missing. Often their theft or disappearance happens during times of war or disaster, when they cannot be protected or when a military force decides to take treasures back home as a trophy. Sometimes these treasures are recovered, but many are still missing. Here, Live Science takes a look at some of these lost treasures that may never be found. Some of these treasures are now likely destroyed — most scholars believe the Ark of the Covenant is long gone — but some may still exist and be recovered — such as the crown jewels of Ireland, a 333-carat pink diamond and mysterious treasure depicted in a Dead Sea Scroll.

The Amber Room

Amber Room

(Image credit: Alamy)

Constructed in the Catherine Palace in the 18th century in Tsarskoe Selo, near St. Petersburg, the Amber Room contained gold-gilded mosaics, mirrors and carvings, along with panels constructed out of about 1,000 pounds (450 kilograms) of amber. Tsarskoe Selo was captured by Germany in 1941, during World War II, and the room's panels and art were disassembled and taken to Germany. They haven't been seen since, and it's possible, they are now destroyed. A re-creation of the Amber Room can be seen today in the Catherine Palace.

Sarcophagus of Menkaure

Sarcophagus of Menkaure

(Image credit: TIMEA/Wikipedia Under CC BY-SA-2.5)

The pyramid of the Egyptian pharaoh Menkaure is the smallest of the three pyramids that were constructed at Giza around 4,500 years ago. In the 1830s, English military officer Howard Vyse explored the Giza pyramids, at times using destructive techniques (his use of explosives being the most notorious) to make his way through the structures. Among his discoveries at Giza was an ornate sarcophagus found in Menkaure's pyramid that Vyse tried to ship to England in 1838, aboard the merchant ship Beatrice. The Beatrice sank during its journey, taking the ornate sarcophagus along with it. If the Beatrice is ever found, it may be possible to retrieve and the sarcophagus. 

Ark of the Covenant

Ark of the Covenant

(Image credit: Alamy)

According to the Hebrew Bible, the Ark of the Covenant was a chest that held tablets engraved with the 10 Commandments. The chest was kept in a temple said to have been built by King Solomon. This temple, sometimes called the First Temple, was the most sacred site on Earth for the Jewish people, but it was destroyed in 587 B.C. when a Babylonian army led by King Nebuchadnezzar II conquered Jerusalem and sacked the city. It's unclear what happened to the Ark of the Covenant and its location has long since been a source of speculation. 

Honjo Masamune Sword

Honjo Masamune

(Image credit: Wikipedia)

The Honjo Masamune is a sword said to have been created by the swordsmith Gorō Nyūdō Masamune (lived A.D. 1264 to 1343), who is considered by many to be the greatest sword maker in Japanese history. It is named after one of its owners, Honjo Shigenaga, who took it as a prize after a 16th-century battle. The sword came into the possession of Tokugawa Ieyasu, a leader who became the first shogun of Japan, after winning a series of wars in the 16th century.

The sword would be passed down through the Tokugawa family until the end of World War II, when, during the American occupation of Japan, the sword had to be turned over to American authorities who were concerned that this sword, and others like it, could be used as weapons against the Americans. The sword never re-appeared again. It's possible that American soldiers destroyed the sword, along with other captured Japanese weapons; or they may have brought the sword to America, meaning it could be re-discovered.

Lost Library of the Moscow Tsars

Lost Library of the Moscow Tsars

(Image credit: Alamy)

The Library of the Moscow Tsars supposedly contained a vast collection of Greek texts dating to ancient times, as well as texts written in a variety of other languages. The rulers of the Grand Duchy of Moscow supposedly built the library, which became a large facility by the 16th century.

There are claims that Ivan IV, better known as Ivan the Terrible, who lived from A.D. 1530 to 1584, somehow managed to hide the library's texts. There have been many attempts over the centuries to find this "hidden library," but so far the searchers have come up empty-handed. Whether or not this "hidden library" existed, a number of ancient texts written in Greek and other languages are located in archives in Moscow and St. Petersburg, said historian Patricia Kennedy Grimsted in her book "Archives in Russia: A Directory and Bibliographic Guide to Holdings in Moscow and St. Petersburg" (Routledge, 1997).

Crown jewels of Ireland

Irish Crown Jewels

(Image credit: Wikipedia)

Stolen in 1907 from Dublin Castle, the "crown jewels of Ireland" were "not connected with any coronation ceremony and included no crown. Rather, they comprised a jewelled star of the Order of St. Patrick and a diamond brooch and five gold collars of that order, all Crown property," wrote Tomás O'Riordan, a historian and project manager at University College Cork, in an article published in History Ireland. "[The] Order of St. Patrick was founded in 1783, to reward those in high office in Ireland and Irish peers — referred to as Knights' companions — on whose support the government of the day depended," O'Riordan wrote. Britain controlled Ireland at the time the crown jewels were created.

The jewelry was made from 394 stones taken from Queen Charlotte's jewelry and an Order of the Bath Badge. The jewels also held rupees from a Mughal emperor and possibly precious stones provided by a Sultan of Turkey, O'Riordan said.

Lax security (the jewels were kept in a library) were blamed for the robbery. Who stole the jewels and what happened to them remain a mystery. A wide range of people including Francis Shackleton, brother of the famous explorer Ernest Shackleton, have been suspected of pulling off the heist.  

Sappho's lost poems

Sappho's lost poems

(Image credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikipedia)

In the seventh-century B.C., the Greek lyric poet Sappho was the Shakespeare of her day. She was highly regarded among the ancient Greeks who considered her to be one of the finest poets. Unfortunately for us, few of her poems still survive. Recently, however sections of two never-before-seen poems by Sappho have been revealed by University of Oxford papyrologist Dirk Obbink. One poem talks about her brothers, while the other tells of unrequited love. They were purchased by an undisclosed anonymous collector off the antiquities market. At one point, the poems were used to make cartonnage for Egyptian mummies. Concerns have been raised that the papyri may have been looted and taken out of Egypt; however, Obbink says that they have a legal, documented, collection history.

Dead Bishop's Treasure Stolen by Pirates

Dead Bishop's Treasure Stolen by Pirates

(Image credit: Myriam Thyes/Wikipedia under CC BY-SA 3.0)

In A.D. 1357, the São Vicente set sail from Lisboa (also called Lisbon) to Avignon, in France, carrying a treasure acquired by Thibaud de Castillon, a recently deceased bishop of Lisboa. The treasure included gold, silver, rings, tapestries, jewels, fine plates and even portable altars. While sailing near the town of Cartagena, in modern-day Spain, the São Vicente was attacked by two heavily armed pirate vessels whose crew seized its treasure. One pirate ship, commanded by a man named Antonio Botafoc (a name that means fire blast or fire fart) was later captured after it ran aground. However, the other pirate ship commanded by Martin Yanes, appears to have to have made a clean getaway. What happened to Yanes, his pirate crew and the stolen treasure is unknown.

The Just Judges

The Just Judges

(Image credit: Wikipedia)

The "Just Judges" is a panel that is part of the Ghent Altarpiece, a 15th-century work of art painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck that is located in the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. The panel shows a number of characters on horseback, their identity uncertain. Philip the Good, who was Duke of Burgundy at the time the altarpiece was created, is likely one of the characters on horseback. The panel was stolen in 1934 and has never been found.

However, despite the passage of time, new tips continue to come in and the case file is still active with the attorney general's office still updating the 2,000-page file, wrote art historian Noah Charney in an article published in the Guardian in 2013. Before the Just Judges was stolen in 1934, there were numerous other attempts to steal it and other parts of the Ghent Altarpiece. 

The Florentine Diamond

Florentine Diamond

(Image credit: Newscom)

Boasting 133 carats, the Florentine Diamond was "reputed to be the largest pink gem of its type in the world," wrote historian Gordon Brook-Shepherd in the book "Uncrowned Emperor: The Life and Times of Otto Von Habsburg" (Bloomsbury, 2007). The diamond's origins and present-day whereabouts are unclear.

In November 1918, it was in the possession of the Habsburg royal family who had just been deposed after the empire that they ruled, Austria-Hungary, found itself on the losing side of World War I. The family deposited the pink gem in a bank vault in Switzerland, entrusting it to an Austrian lawyer named Bruno Steiner, who was supposed to help the deposed royal family sell it and other royal jewels, Brook-Shepherd wrote in his book. It's unclear what happened next. A news report published in 1924 indicates that Steiner was arrested, charged with fraud and acquitted. It's possible that the Florentine Diamond was recut sometime after World War I and is now a series of smaller diamonds.

Lost da Vinci mural

Battle of Anghiari

(Image credit: Alamy)

In 1505, Leonardo da Vinci painted a mural depicting the 1440 victory of the Italian League (led by Florence) over Milan in the Battle of Anghiari. The painting, in the Palazzo Vecchio (the town hall in Florence), disappeared in 1563, when the hall was remodelled by painter and architect Giorgio Vasari. In 2012, a team of art experts announced they had discovered evidence that the mural was not stolen and that another mural by Giorgio Vasari had simply been painted over da Vinci's mural. However, the results were never confirmed and the research was put on indefinite hold in September 2012.

Menorah from Second Temple

Menorah from Second Temple

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Between roughly A.D. 66 and 74, Jewish rebels, trying to free Israel from Roman rule, fought against the Roman army. In A.D. 70, the rebels suffered a critical blow as Jerusalem was captured by a Roman army led by Titus, a general who would later become a Roman emperor. The Second Temple was destroyed, the Roman army carrying its treasures back to Rome. Those treasures included the temple's menorah, a lampstand with six branches.

The Arch of Titus, located in Rome, includes a scene depicting the menorah being carried to Rome; in the scene, the menorah appears as a massive object, almost as big as the soldiers carrying it. The fate of the menorah after it arrived in Rome is unclear. Some people speculate that it could still be somewhere in Rome, waiting to be found.

Copper Scroll treasures

Copper Scroll Treasures

(Image credit: Alamy)

Perhaps the most unusual Dead Sea Scroll discovered in the Qumran caves is a text engraved on a sheet of copper that discusses the location of a vast amount of hidden treasure. This Copper Scroll, as it is called, is in a museum in Jordan. Whether the ancient writer of the scroll was describing a real or legendary treasure is a source of debate among scholars. At the time the scroll was written, the Roman army was in the process of defeating Jewish groups that were rebelling against Roman rule; the Roman army had taken Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple, which was the most important, surviving religious site for the Jewish people.

Some scholars have speculated that the treasures referred to in the Copper Scroll could be real treasures that were hidden before the Roman army destroyed the temple. Other scholars have argued that the amount of treasure discussed in the Copper Scroll is so vast that it must be the stuff of legend.

Isabella Steward Gardner Museum stolen art

Isabella Steward Gardner Museum stolen art

(Image credit: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum)

On March 18, 1990, two thieves dressed as police officers broke into the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum and stole 13 works of art valued at about $500 million. They included three works by the Dutch painter Rembrandt and five works by the French artist Edgar Degas. The identity of the thieves is unknown and the artwork has never been recovered. It's possible that the thieves who stole the works of art are now dead and the paintings are severely damaged or destroyed. Despite the high value of the art, it would be difficult to sell since it is well known, and any buyer could easily determine that it was stolen and end up facing criminal charges themselves. 

Peking Man

Peking Man

(Image credit: Alamy)

In 1923, the fossil of a hominid that is sometimes called Peking Man (a form of Homo erectus) was discovered in a cave near the village of Zhoukoudian, close to Beijing (which at that time was called Peking). The fossils disappeared in 1941, during the Japanese invasion of China. Where the fossils are located today is unknown. Some have speculated that they were lost at sea while being transported to the United States; others think they may actually be located under a parking lot in China. 

Q Source

Q source

(Image credit: Alamy)

Q source, as modern-day scholars call it, is a hypothetical first-century text that contains a number of sayings attributed to Jesus. If it existed, scholars believe that it was used by ancient writers to help craft the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The existence of Q source is based on the fact that there are passages in Matthew and Luke that are identical. While the Gospel of Mark is believed to be a source for both Matthew and Luke, some passages included in both Matthew and Luke are not in Mark. Some scholars believe that those passages are from another source, which they call "Q source." The problem is that no copy of Q source, if it really existed, is known to survive.

Nazi Gold in Lake Toplitz?

Nazi Gold in Lake Toplitz?

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Legend has it that near the end of the World War II, a Nazi force led by SS officer Ernst Kaltenbrunner sunk a vast amount of gold into Lake Toplitz in Austria, to keep it from being captured by the invading allied forces. Since that time, numerous searches have been undertaken, but, so far, no gold has been found.

It's possible that the story is a legend and, in fact, there was no gold sunk into the lake; however, some researchers have noted that the lake has poor visibility and a vast amount of logs and debris that make attempts to locate gold through diving both difficult and dangerous. Some divers have been killed trying to find gold in the lake's waters.

Lost Raphael painting

Portrait of a Young Man (Raphael)

(Image credit: WIkipedia)

The Italian painter Raphael Sanzio (lived A.D. 1483-1520), often simply called "Raphael," painted this striking "portrait of a young man" on an oil canvas. The identity of the person being drawn and the exact date when Raphael drew it are both unknown. The painting was owned by the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, Poland, in September 1939 when the German army invaded Poland. Nazi officials stole the painting from the museum, which had planned to put it in the Führermuseum in Linz (the Linz Art Gallery), Austria, the Monuments Men Foundation notes on its website.

The Führermuseum was never built and the painting was last seen in Hans Frank's chalet in Neuhaus on lake Schliersee, Germany, in January 1945. Frank was a Nazi official who was put in charge of occupied Poland, where he oversaw numerous war crimes and the murder of Poland's Jews. After World War II, he was put on trial, sentenced to death and executed. The location of the Raphael painting that was in his chalet is unknown.

A Royal Casket

Royal Casket (Poland)

(Image credit: Department of National Heritage/Wikipeida)

In 1800, Princess Izabela Czartoryska created the so-called royal casket, which was a collection of artifacts from the royal families that had ruled Poland. These artifacts included jewels worn by the kings of Poland, works of art and other mementos. By 1800, Poland had ceased to exist as an independent state, having been divided up among the various other powers in the region. The royal casket would eventually fall victim to another group of invaders — it was seized by Nazi Germany after they invaded Poland in September 1939. Its contents are now lost.

Love's Labour's Won

Love's Labour's Won

(Image credit: Alamy)

William Shakespeare wrote the play "Love's Labou's Won," though no copies survive today. It may be a sequel to "Love's Labour's Lost," a comedy that Shakespeare wrote in the 1590s. Documents in the 1590s and 1600s indicate that "Love's Labou's Won" was published by 1598 and was still being sold in 1603, although no surviving copies have been found, William Carroll, an English professor at Boston University, wrote in the preface to a republished edition of "Love's Labour's Lost" (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Some scholars believe that all records of "Love Labour's Won" refer to another play by Shakespeare called "Much Ado About Nothing," which is well known and performed today. One Royal Shakespeare Company production actually retitled a performance (which can be seen on YouTube) of “Much Ado about Nothing” to "Love Labour's Won" based on this theory.

First-Century Gospels

First Century Gospels

(Image credit: Andrea Wahra/Wikipedia Under CC BY-SA 3.0)

The oldest surviving copies of the canonical Christian gospels — Mark, Luke, Matthew and John — date to the second century A.D. However, many scholars believe that some of these gospels were initially written in the second half of the first century A.D. This has led to many questions — do any copies survive from the first century A.D.? If so, how could we determine their date? If no copies survive from the first century A.D., is it possible that the earliest gospels were, in fact, written in the second century A.D.?

In 2015, scholars reported that they had found a fragment of the Gospel of Mark within the remains of a mummy mask, which they believe date to the first century. A combination of carbon dating, the style of the handwriting on the fragments and a study of the other documents found in the mask, provided scholars with the first-century date. However, this text has yet to be published.

Michelangelo's Mask of a Faun

Mask of a Faun (attributed to Michelangelo)

(Image credit: Monuments Men Foundation)

This marble "mask of a Faun" — a faun being a half-human, half-goat mythological creature — has been attributed to the Italian artist Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (lived A.D. 1475-1564), often simply called "Michelangelo." The Bargello Museum in Florence, Italy, owns the mask, which was stolen in August 1944 from Castello di Poppi (a castle in Tuscany). The thieves? Soldiers from the German army's 305th division that was attached to the 10th German Army, the Monument's Men Foundation notes on its website. The soldiers stole the mask sometime between Aug. 22 and Aug. 23 and placed it in a truck. "After a short stop in Forli, Italy, the 10th Army truck containing this work of art and others continued on Aug. 31," the foundation's website says. The mask's present location is unknown.

Caravaggio's Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence

Caravaggio's Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence

(Image credit: Alamy)

The "Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence" is a painting created in 1609 by the Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (lived A.D. 1571-1610). It shows the birth of Christ, with the infant Jesus lying on a haystack, a scene that highlights the poverty of his birth, scholars say. The painting was stolen in 1969 when it was in a chapel in Palermo, in Sicily, Italy. The painting was never found and it remains unclear who stole it. It's long been suspected that members of the Sicilian mafia carried out the heist. In 2015, a replica of the painting was unveiled in the chapel where it was stolen.

Missing Romanov Easter Eggs

Missing Romanov Easter Eggs

(Image credit: Wikipedia)

Between 1885 and 1916, about 50 ornately decorated "Easter Eggs" were created for the Russian imperial family by the jewelry company Fabergé. The company was run by the Russian jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé at the time.

These eggs "were the ultimate achievement of the renowned Russian jewelry house and must also be considered the last great commissions of objets d'art. Ten eggs were produced from 1885 to 1893, during the reign of Emperor Alexander III; 40 more were created during the rule of his dutiful son, Nicholas II, two each year, one for his mother, the dowager, the second for his wife," notes Faberge on its company website.

The Russian revolution led to the execution of the Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia, along with much of the Romanov family. In the aftermath of their death, some of these 50 eggs are now missing with some rumors claiming that some of them are now in private collections around the world. 

Jules Rimet Cup

Jules Rimet Cup

(Image credit: Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Jules Rimet Cup was awarded to the team that won the World Cup tournament. The trophy — named for Jules Rimet, founder of the World Cup tournament — was sculpted by Abel Lafleur and has "a depiction of the goddess of victory holding an octagonal vessel above her head, produced in gold with a base of semi-precious stones," FIFA says on their website.

According to FIFA rules, the first team to win the Jules Rimet Cup three times would gain permanent possession of it. This happened in 1970, when Brazil won the cup for the third time. The cup was sent to Brazil and a new World Cup trophy was created.

In 1983, the cup was stolen when it was in Rio de Janeiro and hasn't been seen since. The thieves may have melted down the cup. In 2015, the Associated Press reported that the original stone base of the Jules Rimet Cup was found in a basement at FIFA headquarters in Switzerland, according to a report by the Associated Press. The stone base was in use until 1954, when a new base was created for the Jules Rimet Cup.

Treasures of Nimrud

Nimrud Treasures

(Image credit: Alamy)

The ancient city of Nimrud is located in modern-day Iraq and was a capital city of the Assyrian empire during the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (reign 883–859 B.C.). He built a new palace at Nimrud along with other amenities. Recent history has not been so kind to Nimrud. The terrorist group called the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) captured the ancient city in June 2014 during a military offensive; the ancient city wasn't recaptured until November 2016.

By then, ISIS had blown up part of the city and used bulldozers to destroy and dig up other portions. Looting also took place in the period after the ancient city was retaken, when little security could be provided. While many treasures at Nimrud have been destroyed, others are damaged and can be reconstructed, and still others may be rediscovered on the black market.  

George Mallory's Lost Camera

George Mallory's Lost Camera

(Image credit: Alamy)

British explorers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared on June 8, 1924, while nearing the top of Mount Everest. A storm may have doomed their final push to climb the mountain. It wasn't until 1953 that a team led by Edmund Hillary became the first to climb Mount Everest. One question that remains unanswered is whether Mallory and Irvine managed to reach the top before they died. Mallory's body was discovered in 1999; a fall appears to be what killed him.

Irvine's body has never been found. If Irvine's body is found, it's possible that the camera that Mallory and Irvine brought with them will also be rediscovered. If the film in the camera is still preserved then it's possible that it could be developed and the question of whether Mallory and Irvine made it to the top of Everest before dying can be solved.

Michelangelo's Leda and the Swan

Michelangelo's Leda and the Swan

(Image credit: Fine Art Images/Album/Newscom)

The painting "Leda and the Swan" depicts a scene from ancient mythology where the god Jupiter, taking on the appearance of a swan, seduces Leda, the Queen of Sparta. Helen of Troy was one of the offspring resulting from this sexual encounter. Italian artist Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (lived A.D. 1475-1564), often simply called "Michelangelo," produced a painting, now lost, which depicts the encounter. Only a small number of copies survive. The copies show that Michelangelo's painting was quite erotic, with a fully nude Leda shown in the process of having sex with Jupiter who is in the form of a swan. It's not known why exactly Michelangelo's painting is now lost, but one possibility is that, over the past 500 years, some viewers found its erotic nature to be too much and it was destroyed at some point.

The Life of General Villa (1914)

The Life of General Villa (1914)

(Image credit: Library of Congress)

The "Life of General Villa" is a lost film that depicted Francisco "Pancho" Villa (lived A.D. 1878-1923), who fought a series of battles against Mexico's leaders. While the film was heavily fictionalized, it featured footage of real-life battles fought by Villa's forces. Villa himself signed a contract with the Mutual Film Corporation (the maker of the film) that allowed filmmakers to film him and the real-life battles fought by his troops in exchange for a share of the film's earnings. While the film was released and shown publicly, it is now lost. Villa became an enemy of the United States not long after the release of the film, when his troops crossed into New Mexico and killed several Americans. An American military expedition into Mexico in 1916 failed to hunt him down, although he was assassinated in 1923.

The world's first feature-length film

The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)

(Image credit: NFSA/YouTube)

The "Story of the Kelly Gang" (released in Australia in 1906) is regarded by many as being the world's first feature-length film. Running at over an hour long, the movie depicted the story of the 19th-century outlaw Ned Kelly (lived 1854-1880) and his gang.

The film was a huge success, film historians Sally Jackson and Graham Shirley wrote in an article on the National Film & Sound Archive of Australia's website. The film "opened in Melbourne on Boxing Day 1906 and went on to enthral audiences across the country," Jackson and Shirley wrote. "By late 1907, the film had screened in New Zealand and England, where it was billed as 'the longest film ever made.'"

"Reports of crime and censorship followed screenings around the country. In May 1907, the film inspired five local children in the Victorian town of Ballarat to break into a photographic studio to steal money, after which they bailed out a group of schoolchildren at gunpoint. In April, the Victorian Chief Secretary banned the film from Benalla and Wangaratta, two towns with strong Kelly connections."

Unfortunately, the film was never properly preserved, and by the 1970s, only "some publicity material and a few photographs" remained, Jackson and Shirley noted. Discoveries of bits of the film, along with restoration work, have allowed for about a quarter of the film to be revealed, but much of it remains lost.