A huge number of priceless treasures have disappeared from the historical record throughout the ages. These artifacts often go missing due to theft or under mysterious circumstances during times of war or disaster, when they can't be protected or when military forces decide to take those treasures as a trophy. Sometimes treasures are recovered, but many are still missing.
Here are some lost treasures that have never been found. A few of these artifacts are now likely destroyed but some may still exist and one day be recovered.
Stolen Aztec treasure
The Aztec Empire in Mexico was thriving in the early 16th century, but its ruler, Montezuma, met his downfall when Hernán Cortes and his fellow Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1519. They made Montezuma their puppet ruler, and he died in 1520 in unclear circumstances. In the face of an Aztec rebellion, Cortes and his forces tried to sneak away from the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in the cover of night on June 30, 1520 with a huge haul of Aztec gold. But one of their vessels sank in a now dried-up canal that fed into Lake Texcoco, resulting in the death of many Spanish and the loss of some of the gold.
That night became known as "La Noche Triste," or the "Night of Sadness," to the Spanish. The Spanish returned a few months later to retrieve the lost gold, but they recovered only a portion of it. Some of that gold was found recently when a construction worker unearthed a centuries-old gold bar in Mexico City — which stands where the Aztec capital and its surrounding waters once lay — but much of the gold is still missing.
The Amber Room
The Amber Room was constructed in the Catherine Palace in the 18th century in Tsarskoe Selo, near St. Petersburg. The 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 artwork were disassembled and taken to Germany. They haven't been seen since, and it's possible they are now destroyed. Today, the Catherine Palace hosts a re-creation of the Amber Room.
Sarcophagus of Menkaure
The pyramid of Egyptian pharaoh Menkaure is the smallest of the three pyramids 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.
Vyse made a number of discoveries at Giza, including an ornate sarcophagus found in Menkaure's pyramid. Vyse tried to ship the sarcophagus to England in 1838 aboard the merchant ship Beatrice, but the ship sank during its journey and took the ornate sarcophagus down with it. If the Beatrice is ever found, it may be possible to retrieve the ancient sarcophagus.
Ark of the Covenant
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 in Jerusalem in ancient Israel that was 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 an army from ancient Babylon, 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 been a source of speculation.
Honjo Masamune sword
The Honjo Masamune is a sword that was supposedly created by Gorō Nyūdō Masamune, who lived from 1264 to 1343 and is considered by many to be the greatest sword maker in Japanese history. The sword is named after one of its owners, Honjo Shigenaga, who took it as a prize after a 16th-century battle. The sword later came into the possession of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who became the first shogun of Japan after winning a series of wars in the 16th century.
The sword passed down through the Tokugawa family until the end of World War II, when the sword was turned over to American authorities during the American occupation of Japan, as they were concerned that the sword, and others like it, could be used against the Americans. But the sword never reappeared. It's possible that U.S. soldiers destroyed the sword, along with other captured Japanese weapons; or they may have brought the sword to America, meaning it could be recovered.
Lost Library of the Moscow Tsars
The Library of the Moscow Tsars supposedly contained a vast collection of ancient Greek texts, as well as texts written in a variety of other languages. The rulers of the Grand Duchy of Moscow supposedly built the library by 1518, and in the 16th century prince Andrey Kurbsky wrote of a meeting between the philosopher Maximus (1475–1556) and the grand prince of Moscow Vasili III (1479-1533) in which the grand prince showed Maximus a massive number of Greek books wrote, David Arans, a scholar, in an article published in 1983 in the Journal of Library History.
There are claims that Ivan IV, better known as Ivan the Terrible, who lived from 1530 to 1584, somehow hid 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. Regardless of 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, historian Patricia Kennedy Grimsted wrote in her book "Archives in Russia: A Directory and Bibliographic Guide to Holdings in Moscow and St. Petersburg" (Routledge, 1997).
Crown jewels of Ireland
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," Tomás O'Riordan, a historian and project manager at University College Cork, wrote in an article published in 2001 in History Ireland magazine. "[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 these "crown jewels" were created in 1783. The jewelry was made from 394 stones taken from Queen Charlotte's jewelry and an Order of the Bath badge. Queen Charlotte was the wife of King George III. The jewels also held rupees from a Mughal emperor and possibly precious stones provided by a sultan of Turkey, O'Riordan said.
The jewels were kept in a library, and lax security was blamed for making the robbery possible. Who stole the jewels and what happened to them remain a mystery. A wide range of people have been suspected of pulling off the heist, including Francis Shackleton, brother of the famous explorer Ernest Shackleton, although nothing was ever proved.
Sappho's lost poems
The Greek lyric poet Sappho, who lived in the seventh century B.C., was the Shakespeare of her day. She was highly regarded by the ancient Greeks, who considered her to be one of the finest poets. Unfortunately for us, few of her poems still survive. In 2014, however, sections of two never-before-seen poems by Sappho were revealed by University of Oxford papyrologist Dirk Obbink. One poem talks about her brothers, while the other tells of unrequited love.
Their provenance is unclear. In 2021 Brill retracted an article written by Obbink that detailed its provenance and right now it is uncertain where exactly they come from.
Dead bishop's treasure
In 1357, a ship called the São Vicente set sail from Lisbon in Portugal to Avignon in France, carrying treasures acquired by Thibaud de Castillon, the bishop of Lisbon who had recently died. The treasures 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 the treasure.
One pirate ship, commanded by a man named Antonio Botafoc (which in the languages used at the time in Iberia 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 made a clean getaway. What happened to Yanes, his pirate crew and the stolen treasure is unknown.
The Just Judges
The "Just Judges" panel is part of the Ghent Altarpiece, a 15th-century work of art painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck in Saint Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. The panel shows a number of characters, whose identities are uncertain, on horseback. Philip the Good, who was duke of Burgundy at the time the altarpiece was created, is likely one of the characters.
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 — which is now more than 2,000 pages long — is still active, Noah Charney, an art historian, wrote in an article published in The Guardian in 2013. There had been numerous other attempts to steal the Just Judges panel and other parts of the Ghent Altarpiece prior to the 1934 theft.
The yellow 137-carat Florentine Diamond was likely from India that may have made its way to Europe by the end of the 15th century. How and when it got to Europe is a matter of debate. One story is that Charles the Bold who was the Duke of Burgundy from 1467-1477, had it cut from a larger diamond and was so enamored with the Florentine Diamond that he even carried it with him into battle and was supposedly killed with it on him.
After World War I the last emperor of Austria-Hungary, Charles I, fled with it to Switzerland where he put it in a bank vault and entrusted it to an Austrian lawyer named Bruno Steiner, who was supposed to help the deposed royal family sell it and other royal jewels, wrote historian Gordon Brook-Shepherd in the book "Uncrowned Emperor: The Life and Times of Otto Von Habsburg" (Bloomsbury, 2007). It's unclear what happened next. A news report published in 1924 indicated that Steiner was arrested, charged with fraud and acquitted. It's possible that the Florentine Diamond was recut and is now a series of smaller diamonds.
Lost da Vinci mural
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 mural, created in the Palazzo Vecchio (the town hall in Florence), disappeared in 1563, when the hall was remodeled by painter and architect Giorgio Vasari.
In 2012, a team of art experts announced they had discovered evidence that the mural was not destroyed and that Vasari had simply painted his own mural over da Vinci's work. The team had been doing scientific tests on the mural for years and had published a few of their studies including a radar study published in the journal NDT & E International in 2005.
However, the team's results were never confirmed, and the research was put on indefinite hold later that year. In 2020, a different team of researchers contended that da Vinci had never painted the mural to begin with, although this claim is also disputed. Ultimately, what became of the mural — and whether it even existed — is a subject of debate.
Menorah from the Second Temple
Between roughly A.D. 66 and 74, Jewish rebels fought against the Roman army in an attempt to free Israel from the Roman Empire's control. In A.D. 70, the rebels suffered a critical blow as Jerusalem was captured by a Roman force led by Titus, a general who would later become a Roman emperor. The Second Temple, at that time the most important religious site for Jewish people, was destroyed, and the Roman army carried its treasures back to ancient Rome. Those treasures included the temple's menorah — a lamp stand with six branches.
The Arch of Titus, located close to the Colosseum 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.
Copper scroll treasures
Perhaps the most unusual Dead Sea Scroll discovered in the Qumran caves in the West Bank 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, around A.D. 70, 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.
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 Stewart Gardner Museum stolen art
On March 18, 1990, two thieves dressed as police officers broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, 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 thieves' identity is still 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 as it is well known, and any buyer could easily determine that it was stolen and end up facing criminal charges themselves.
In 1923, the fossils of a hominid that is sometimes called Peking Man (a form of Homo erectus), who lived between 200,000 and 750,000 years ago, 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, andhe their location today is unknown. Some scholars have speculated that the fossils were lost at sea while being transported to the United States (in an effort to save them from the invasion); others think they may actually be located under a parking lot in China.
Q Source, as modern-day scholars call it, or sometimes Q, is a hypothetical first-century A.D. text that contains a number of sayings attributed to Jesus. If it existed, scholars believe that Q source was used by ancient writers to help craft the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The existence of Q Source is based partly on the fact that several passages in Matthew and Luke 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." ("Q" stands for "quelle," which means "source" in German.) The problem is that no copy of Q Source, if it really existed, is known to survive. Some recent scholarship suggests that the Gospel of Marcion, a second-century non-canonical text, may contain parts of this Q Source.
According to legend, near the end of the World War II, a Nazi force led by SS officer Ernst Kaltenbrunner sank 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 just legend and that in reality no gold was 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 any gold both difficult and dangerous. Some divers have been killed trying to find gold in the lake's waters.
Lost Raphael painting
The Italian painter Raphael Sanzio, often simply called "Raphael," who lived from 1483 to 1520, painted this striking "Portrait of a Young Man." The identity of the person in the painting and the exact date when Raphael made 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 and intended to put it in the planned Führermuseum in Linz (the Linz Art Gallery), Austria, the Monuments Men Foundation noted 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, but Raphael's painting has never been found.
In 1800, Poland's Princess Izabela Czartoryska created the so-called royal casket, which was a collection of artifacts from the royal families who had ruled the country. These artifacts included jewels worn by the kings of Poland, works of art and other mementos. Poland had ceased to exist as an independent state in 1795, 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 it invaded Poland in September 1939. The casket's contents are now lost.
Love's Labour's Won
William Shakespeare is known to have written the play "Love's Labour's Won," though no copies survive today. It may be a sequel to "Love's Labour's Lost," a comedy that Shakespeare penned in the 1590s. Documents in the 1590s and 1600s indicate that "Love's Labour's Won" had been 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 records of "Love Labour's Won" refer to another play by Shakespeare called "Much Ado About Nothing," which is well known and is still performed today. One Royal Shakespeare Company production even retitled a performance (which can be seen on YouTube) of "Much Ado about Nothing" to "Love Labour's Won" based on this theory.
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 several questions — do any copies survive from the first century? If so, how could we determine their date??
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 dated to the first century. However, after the text was published in a 2018 edition of the journal The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, it turned out that the text dated to the second or third century.
Michelangelo's Mask of a Faun
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, often simply called "Michelangelo," who lived from 1475 to 1564. The Bargello Museum in Florence, Italy, owned the mask, but it was stolen in 1944 from Castello di Poppi, a castle in Tuscany.
The thieves? Soldiers from the German army's 305th division that was attached to the German 10th Army, the Monuments Men Foundation noted on its website. The soldiers stole the mask sometime between Aug. 22 and Aug. 23, 1944, 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 said. This appears to have been the last time it was seen and the mask's present location is unknown.
The "Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence" was created in 1609 by the Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, who lived from 1571 to 1610. It shows the birth of Christ, with the infant Jesus lying on a haystack — a scene that highlights the poverty of his birth, according to scholars. 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 the original was stolen.
Missing Romanov Easter eggs
Between 1885 and 1916, the jewelry company Fabergé, run at the time by the Russian jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé, made ornately decorated "Easter eggs" for the Russian imperial family.
These eggs "were the ultimate achievement of the renowned Russian jewelry house and must also be considered the last great commissions of objects d'art,"Fabergé notes on its company website. "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," .
The Russian Revolution in 1917 led to the execution of Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia, along with much of the Romanov family. In the aftermath of their deaths, some of the eggs went missing and are still unaccounted for today; rumors claim that some of them are in private collections around the world. It's possible that some could now be in the United States — documents have come to light showing that shipments of antiques and artifacts worth an estimated $164 million were shipped from the Soviet Union to the U.S. at the end of the Cold War.
Jules Rimet trophy
The Jules Rimet trophy was a prize that was awarded to the winning team of the soccer World Cup tournament. The trophy — named for Jules Rimet, founder of the World Cup — was sculpted by Abel Lafleur and had "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, the international governing organization of soccer, said on its website.
The trophy was first awarded in 1930 at the inaugural World Cup and passed from winner to winner every four years; but in 1970 Brazil won the competition for the third time. According to FIFA rules, the first team to win the World Cup three times would gain permanent possession of the Jules Rimet trophy. The cup was therefore sent to Brazil and a new World Cup trophy was created.
In 1983, the cup was stolen in Rio de Janeiro and hasn't been seen since. The thieves may have melted down the cup, which was made largely of gold and weighed about 13 pounds (6.1 kilograms).
This wasn't the first time the Jules Rimet trophy had been stolen. In 1966, the trophy was taken from a Methodist hall in London. The trophy was recovered a week later when it was discovered by a dog named Pickles and its owner, David Corbett, who found it lying in a street in south London wrapped in newspaper and string, according to FIFA's website. The thief or thieves of this robbery were never found.
Treasures of Nimrud
The ancient city of Nimrud is located in modern-day Iraq and was the capital of the Assyrian empire during the reign of Ashurnasirpal II, who ruled from 883 to 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 sometimes called the Islamic State group (also known as IS, ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) captured the ancient city in June 2014 during a military offensive; it wasn't recaptured until November 2016.
By then, IS 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
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. No one subsequently succeeded in reaching the summit until 1953, when 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; evidence suggests he was killed by a fall. Irvine's body has never been found. If Irvine's body is discovered, it's possible that the camera Mallory and Irvine took with them will also be found. If the film in the camera is still preserved then it's possible it could be developed, and the question of whether Mallory and Irvine made it to the top of Everest before dying can finally be solved.
Michelangelo's Leda and the Swan
Michaelangelo's 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. According to myth, Helen of Troy was one of their offspring. Michaelangelo's original painting is now lost, and only a small number of copies made by other people survive.
The copies show that Michelangelo's painting was quite erotic, with a fully nude Leda shown, having sex with Jupiter, who is in the form of a swan. It's not known how exactly Michelangelo's painting became 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
The "Life of General Villa" is a lost film that depicted the Mexican revolutionary general Francisco "Pancho" Villa ( 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 movie) that allowed filmmakers to film him and the real-life battles fought by his troops in exchange for a share of the movie'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 film's release, when his troops crossed into New Mexico and killed several Americans. A U.S. military expedition into Mexico in 1916 failed to hunt him down, although he was assassinated in 1923, it may have been ordered by some of Mexico's leaders.
World's first feature-length film
The "Story of the Kelly Gang," released in Australia in 1906, is regarded by many as 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 (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 enthrall 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.'"
The film's depictions of a criminal gang earned it some notoriety. "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," Jackson and Shirley wrote. "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.
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Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.