During the Second World War, many wealthy families and indeed nations tried to hide their valuable artworks from invading troops. Adolf Hitler’s Nazis, for instance, were determined and rapacious looters of high culture. And though many items were returned to their rightful owners after the war, others vanished without a trace – never to be seen again. Here are ten of the most infamous relics that disappeared.
10. The Amber Room
It was 1701 when the master craftsman Gottfried Wolfram began making the Amber Room to the design of Andreas Schlüter. The intricately decorated panels were intended for the Charlottenburg Palace of King Frederick I of Prussia. And it’s said that Frederick was prompted to commission this lavish work by his wife, Sophie Charlotte, who was apparently a woman with expensive tastes in interior décor.
The Amber Room actually ended up in the Berlin City Palace, but it soon found a new home. Tsar Peter the Great visited Frederick William I – Frederick I’s son – in 1716 and mentioned just how beautiful he thought the space was. And, seemingly able to take a hint, the Prussian gifted the entire room’s fittings to the Russian.
The Amber Room was revamped in Russia, and its new home was the Catherine Palace – a modest structure with a Rococo facade stretching more than 1,000 feet. About 20 miles from St Petersburg, it was where the Russian imperial family slummed it in the summer months. Incredibly, it took 10 years to install the 30,000 pounds of exquisitely carved amber.
Then, in the summer of 1941, Hitler’s Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. The Russians tried to hide the Amber Room’s panels by covering them with nondescript wallpaper, but the Germans were not fooled and ripped out the amber. It was subsequently put on display in Germany at Königsberg Castle, which was heavily bombed by the Allies at the end of the war. And this is the last known location of this masterpiece, as it has never been seen since. There is, however, a reconstruction at the Catherine Palace.
9. Peking Man
Peking Man is the name given to a set of fossils of an early ancestor of Homo Sapiens. This hominin is a member of the Homo erectus species that lived from about 1.8 million years ago. Discovered around an hour’s drive west of Beijing in a cave at Zhoukoudian, the Peking Man fossils date from between 680,000 and 780,000 years ago.
Otto Zdansky, who was an Austrian paleontologist, excavated three teeth at the Zhoukoudian site in 1921 and 1923. Then, a scientist called Davidson Black analyzed one of the bones and confirmed that it had belonged to a Homo erectus hominin. And many other fossils were subsequently found at the site, including 15 skull fragments, more teeth, other Homo erectus bones and various stone tools.
These priceless fossils, which are some of the earliest evidence of our human predecessors, were stored in Beijing’s Union Medical College. When Japan occupied China, however, the relics were moved from the college in 1941 by American marines, according to witness accounts. They were then trucked to the northern Chinese port of Qinhuangdao on their way to New York’s Museum of Natural History.
But at some point during their journey, the fossils disappeared – and no trace of them has ever been found. Some have said that the artifacts ended up on board a Japanese ship: the Awa Maru, which a U.S. submarine sunk in 1945. Others, meanwhile, have alleged that the bones were used for Chinese medicine. And yet another theory claims that the fossils were fakes and so were deliberately disposed of. All is not lost, though, since you can still see four of the teeth from Zhoukoudian at the Paleontological Museum at Uppsala University in Sweden.
8. Raphael, Portrait of a Young Man
Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino – more commonly known simply as Raphael – probably painted his Portrait of a Young Man in 1513 or 1514. And many experts believe that this Italian Renaissance masterpiece is in fact a self-portrait. In any case, the work, which was produced in oils on panel, was housed at the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków, Poland until 1939.
When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, however, the head of the Czartoryski family, Prince Augustyn Józef, removed many priceless artworks, including the Portrait of a Young Man. The paintings and other artifacts were then apparently hidden in Sieniawa – a town in eastern Poland. But the Nazis found the cache of art, which also contained works by Leonardo Da Vinci and Rembrandt.
Then, the gruesome Hans Frank – Hitler’s personal lawyer who was later executed as a war criminal – reportedly took the art back to his personal residence: Wawel Castle in Kraków. From there, the Portrait of a Young Man and other works were spirited to Germany, where they apparently became part of Hitler’s personal art collection.
Then, in January 1945 Frank returned the paintings to Kraków’s Wawel Castle – and this is the last known location of the piece. It seems that Frank later fled Krakow with the artwork as the Russians approached the city. But after the end of the war, the portrait was nowhere to be found. And while if the work does still exist, it would be hard to put a precise value on it, it would no doubt be worth many tens of millions.
7. Princess Izabela’s Royal Casket
This Royal Casket was created by Princess Izabela Czartoryska, who was a Polish aristocrat, author and collector. It was a metal-bound, wooden chest with an inscription that read, “Polish mementos assembled in 1800 by Izabela Czartoryska.” It’s said that the relic contained 73 valuable objects, all of which had belonged to members of the Polish royal family at one time or another.
The casket was originally housed at the Temple of Sybil – a building based on the design of the Roman Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, Italy. Inside, there were apparently four gold watches, three of which had belonged to Polish kings and the fourth to a queen. Other treasures included a golden snuff box adorned with diamonds, a gold filigree chain and a portrait of Queen Constance of Austria wearing a silver dress that had apparently been tailored by Poland’s King Sigismund III Vasa.
By the time the Second World War erupted, and Poland was invaded by Communist Russia from the east and Nazi Germany from the west, the Royal Casket had apparently made it to Krakow’s Czartoryski Museum. For safekeeping, it was taken to the town of Sieniawa, where various other priceless paintings and artifacts had been hidden.
Soldiers from Germany’s Wehrmacht arrived in Sieniawa on September 14, 1939. Soon after, a German national who owned a mill in the city and had been an employee of the Czartoryskis, betrayed the whereabouts of the Royal Casket to his compatriots. It’s said that soldiers subsequently smashed open the box before looting the valuables inside. And the contents of the container – which had been so carefully assembled by Princess Izabela – have never been seen again.
6. An Angel with Titus’ Features by Rembrandt
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, who lived from 1606 to 1669, is a towering figure among the artists of the Dutch Golden Age. In fact, he’s widely regarded as the Netherlands’ greatest. He often focussed on religious and biblical themes in his work – especially in his later years when it’s believed that he painted this ethereal figure: An Angel with Titus’ Features.
That said, Rembrandt did not restrict himself to holy subjects alone. He was well known for the breadth of material that he tackled including landscapes, self-portraits, historical episodes and natural studies of animals. Not only that, but he worked as a draughtsman and printmaker as well as a painter. What’s more, Rembrandt was an enthusiastic collector and dealer of the art of the day.
We know that An Angel with Titus’ Features was in Paris when WWII erupted, but precious little is known about its previous history and provenance. In any case, the Nazis got their hands on it after the fall of France in June 1940. The painting had been hidden in a chateau in the French countryside – but the Germans found it.
Then in 1943 the Nazis returned the painting to the French capital. It’s said that the work was earmarked to be exhibited in Hitler’s art museum in Linz, Austria. But said grandiose project was never accomplished. In fact, some 332 paintings had been collected for the planned Hitler gallery, and 162 of those were located after the end of WWII. However, Rembrandt’s angel is one that has never been seen again.
5. MV Awu Maru
The Awu Maru was a Japanese ocean-going passenger liner built between 1941 and 1943 by the Mitsubishi Shipbuilding & Engineering Company in Nagasaki. But she never sailed in her role as a civilian passenger ship. That’s because the necessities of war meant that the Imperial Japanese Navy requisitioned her.
Indeed, Awu Maru became a transport ship. On one instance, the vessel carried 3,000 tons of munitions from Japan to Singapore in March 1943. And although in August 1944 she was torpedoed by a U.S. navy submarine, she survived. The ship made it back to the port of Manila in the Philippines and subsequently underwent repairs in Singapore.
In 1945 Awa Maru was serving under the auspices of the Red Cross, taking supplies to American POWs. But in a case of mistaken identity, the submarine USS Queenfish sunk her in April 1945, killing all but one of the 2,004 people aboard. Then, stories about a cargo of gold, platinum and diamonds worth some $5 billion began to circulate.
Evidently giving credence to the stories of fabulous treasure, the Chinese government tried to salvage the precious cargo that Awu Maru had allegedly carried. There were also theories that a priceless stash of Peking Man fossils had been aboard her when she sank, too. Whatever the truth about the ship’s cargo, though, the Chinese couldn’t find any gold, platinum, diamonds or fossils.
4. The Honjō Masamune
The Honjō Masamune was a Japanese ceremonial sword of the very finest quality. It takes its name from Gorō Nyūdō Masamune, who many regard as the most skilled swordsmith that Japan has ever seen. The weapon was passed through generations of the Tokugawa shogunate. And experts regard it as one of the best examples of Japanese bladesmithing.
But at the end of WWII, when the Allies occupied a defeated Japan, it became illegal to possess a sword like the Honjō Masamune – unless a special government license had been granted. A man called Iemasa Tokugawa is said to have surrendered 14 swords, including the Honjō, to a police station in the Tokyo district of Mejiro towards the close of 1945.
Then in January 1946 the 14 swords are said to have been given to a mysterious character called Sergeant Coldy Bimore. He was apparently an official from the Army Forces Western Pacific’s Foreign Liquidations Commission. Whoever this man was, he is believed to have had the priceless Honjō Masamune in his possession. And the blade has never been seen since.
What’s more, no one has ever found this Sergeant Coldy Bimore, either. One theory is that a clumsy phonetic transliteration of an American name produced the garbled result that is his name. But whatever the case, it does seem that a brazen soldier walked off with a priceless piece of Japanese culture. And where the sword is now remains a mystery.
3. Nazi gold train
Amid the chaos that marked the end of the Second World War in central Europe, legend has it that the Nazis were keeping a huge cache of gold in Poland. And as the Soviet tanks rolled towards Poland, the Germans needed to stash this untold wealth away somewhere. But such a vast amount of gold bullion and other treasure would certainly take some hiding.
And this is where the Owl Mountains in Germany came in. The Nazis had been building a network of tunnels through this range in the Central Sudetes during WWII – some of which had railroad lines. So, why not load all of the treasure on to a train and shunt it into one of the tunnels? After all, surely no one would find it there.
Today the Owl Mountains and the tunnels are actually in Polish territory – a result of the WWII settlement. Back in 1945, the story goes, a train left the Polish city of Wroclaw – then called Breslau – and made its way to its secret destination under the Owl Mountains. And it has been claimed that the train was carrying more than 300 tons of gold.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this tale has held continuing appeal to treasure hunters over the decades. And stories about people who claim to have located the train even surface in the media from time to time. Indeed, after the close of WWII when Poland came under control of the Communist People’s Republic, officials ordered the Polish Army to search for the train. But it has never been found.
2. Five Dancing Women by Edgar Degas
Five Dancing Women (Ballerinas) – to give it its full title – was a work in pastels by the French artist Edgar Degas. Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas was born in 1834 in Paris. He began producing paintings at an early age and even had his own studio by the time he was just 18. That said, Degas did try his hand at law for a time at his father’s insistence. But the pull of art was apparently far too powerful in the young man’s life.
Of course, Degas went on to become one of the most important artists of his time – an era that produced such names as Cézanne, Van Gogh and Manet. The Five Dancing Women – dance was a favorite theme for Degas – was in the collection of Baron Mór Lipót Herzog at the outbreak of WWII.
Herzog was a Hungarian Jew, and he had assembled an outstanding collection of art over the years. But his country fell under the sway of local fascists and their German Nazi supporters. And Jewish property of all kinds was subsequently confiscated, and more than 500,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Even now, in fact, Herzog’s descendants are still suing the Hungarian government for the return of items from his collection.
But this Degas pastel is not among the artworks that have been located and identified in Hungary. This charming example of Degas’ work mysteriously vanished after the war – although works that belonged to Herzog by other artists are in the hands of the Hungarian authorities. No records or trace of the Five Dancing Women’s whereabouts have emerged in the ensuing decades, either. And hope that it may turn up fades with each succeeding year.
1. Yamashita’s gold
Yamashita’s gold is said to have been a massive cache of opulent treasures looted by the Japanese from the countries of Southeast Asia during the Second World War. The story is that they hid the treasure in the Philippines – probably underground in tunnels or caves. Meanwhile, bounty hunters worldwide have flocked to the country over the years in the hope of locating the treasure.
The stolen loot is called Yamashita’s gold after the Imperial Japanese Army general, Tomoyuki Yamashita – known as “The Tiger of Malaya.” Authors Sterling and Peggy Seagrave have been among the leading promoters of the Yamashita’s gold story. They have theorized in two books that Japan had a deliberate plan of looting. And with these riches, they used the money to go towards the war effort.
According to the Seagraves, Japanese authorities partnered with Yakuza gangsters to squeeze as much wealth as they could out of the lands they occupied during the Second World War. The conspiracy of plunder reached as high as Emperor Hirohito himself, the Seagraves have claimed. The Emperor’s brother ran a covert organization – known as Golden Lily – to run this criminal enterprise, it’s alleged.
But in an extraordinary episode, a man called Rogelio Roxas claimed to have found the treasure, including solid gold Buddhas, in the Philippines in 1971. But the Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos threw Roxas in jail and stole a huge amount of gold bullion from him. After years of legal action, the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal agreed that Roxas had found treasure and that Marcos had stolen it from him. But to this day, no one apart from Roxas and possibly Marcos, who has been dead for 30 years, has actually seen the gold.