Nothing is ever so thrilling as the stories of lost treasures and the hidden riches of the world that are on the borders of the legendary. Sunken gall
Nothing is ever so thrilling as the stories of lost treasures and the hidden riches of the world that are on the borders of the legendary. Sunken galleons, plundered gold, and thrilling museum heists have long been the object of fascination for many people, often giving rise to popular urban legends.
But we all know that there is plenty of truth hiding behind these urban myths – and once we dig deeper, plenty of questions start to pop up. Today we are bringing you 10 thrilling stories of the world’s greatest treasures – that have never been found.
The turbulent waves of history have swept these riches under the rug, brought them to the ocean’s bottom, or hidden them from the sight of the world – but how? How does something so precious disappear completely?
Is it greed? Conspiracy? Secrecy? As always, Ancient Origins is here to explore the world’s biggest secrets – and in our latest stories of lost treasures there are plenty of them.
Yamashita’s Gold – The Hoard From a Conquering War
War and plunder go hand in hand. They are two sides of the same coin. And World War II was no exception to that rule. In the Pacific front, the most powerful of the Asian belligerents – the Empire of Japan – conducted some organized and top secret plunder of its conquered opponents.
From all of the Asian countries they occupied, and there were more than 10 of them, the officials under the orders of Emperor Hirohito and his brother Prince Chichibu, looted vast amounts of gold bullion, treasures, gems, and various other riches. This was their attempt to secure funding for either the ongoing war or the future after it.
Some of this gold managed to reach Japan, while most of it only went as far as the Philippines – due to the U.S blockades during the war. And so it was, that in the closing stages of World War II, several of Japan’s princes, and their finest general, Tomoyuki Yamashita , oversaw a frantic attempt to hide these treasures in the hills and underground tunnels of the islands of the Philippines, with claims that there were around 175 hidden vaults created.
Tomoyuki Yamashita was the Japanese general who hid the plundered treasure – dubbed Yamashita’s Gold. (Meeepmep / Public Domain )
It is also said that the engineers who led the constructions committed suicide inside them – the so-called seppuku – to preserve secrecy. While these treasures are considered lost, many sources claim that they were in fact partially recovered by the U.S. forces at the end of the war, and that the vast amounts of money were used to fund many of the secret American operations of the Cold War. But either way, we’ll probably never know what sort of treasures lie beneath the hills of the distant Philippines.
Mussolini’s Sword of Islam
One of the more interesting stories is connected to a famous item from the overtures of the Second World War. The famous Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, was increasingly shifting his gaze to North Africa and Libya. This was a strategic location in the Mediterranean theatre for many key reasons. And in order to successfully gain the love and acceptance of the local population, after the creation of Italian Libya in 1934, Mussolini chose a slightly controversial approach – he ingratiated himself with the Muslim populace.
He encouraged Islam, restored mosques and religious schools, and had eventually proclaimed himself to be the Protector of Islam (Protettore dell’Islam) in 1937. This ‘campaign’ to fully ingratiate himself in Libya was crowned with an elaborate ceremony in the desert.
Here, greeted by the leader of the Berbers, Yusuf Kerisch, Mussolini was given the official title as Protector of Islam, and an elaborate, rich sword that was called the Sword of Islam . The sword was exquisitely decorated in an arabesque style with plenty of solid gold finishing. The interesting part is that the sword was commissioned by Mussolini himself, and was manufactured by the Picchiani e Barlacchi firm from Florence, Italy. Its cost was 200,000 Italian liras.
The Sword of Islam, missing treasure, given to Benito Mussolini in 1937. (RiccardoP1983 / Public Domain )
After the ceremony this sword was kept displayed in Mussolini’s summerhouse – Rocca delle Caminate. It was there until 25th July of 1943, when the summerhouse – an actual fortress – was stormed by communist anti-fascists and thoroughly plundered. From that day on, the whereabouts of this rich masterly sword are unknown. Where now lies the Spada dell’Islam?
Oak Island Mysteries and the Lost Treasure of Captain Kidd
Oak Island is a tiny, privately own island that lies off the coast of Nova Scotia in Canada. It would be seemingly unremarkable, if it weren’t for the countless urban legends related to it. The stories of Oak Island are all centered on a buried treasure , with the first stories of possible findings dating to 1799.
In that year, a farmer claimed to have discovered a location in the ground, which he connected to the story of the famous ‘pirate’ captain William Kidd. It was said that Kidd buried some 2 million pounds on Oak Island . The farmer and his associates did discover curious remains as they dug – every 10 feet (3 meters) they would stumble upon oak platforms.
Illustration of William “Captain” Kidd overseeing a treasure burial. (Rotatebot / Public Domain )
After reaching the depth of 30 feet (9 meters), the men apparently abandoned their dig. The exact location of this pit is unknown today. In the following decades, the partial ownership of the island went from hand to hand, and many people and companies attempted to excavate the treasure.
Countless pits were dug, bores used, schemes devised, and theories proposed – alas no treasure was (apparently) discovered. Many claims were put forward – the treasure was deposited by the Templars, the French or the British, by the Vikings, the Copts, or Masons.
One interesting fact is that in the early 1900’s, it was a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt who was involved in digs at Oak Island, before he’d become the 32nd President of the United States. A coincidence? Mysteries remain aplenty on Oak Island.
The Maltese Falcon, Chinese style: The Peking Man
A peculiar mystery, still unraveled to this day, relates to the remains of the so-called Homo erectus pekinensis, a 500,000 year old set of fossil cranial remains of early man. A revolutionary discovery for that time, the remains offered a fresh insight into the history of archaic man.
But the mystery begins with the onset of World War II, when in 1941, these fossils were confiscated by U.S. forces, with the intention to ship them to New York’s Museum of Natural History. But, from that moment on, all trace of the fossils are gone.
Missing fossil treasure – Peking Man skull fragments. (Ryan Somma / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Some claim that the ship was sunk in route, or that it was in fact the Japanese oceanic liner Awa Maru that transported the cargo and was subsequently torpedoed. Some even claim that the bones were ground up for use in Chinese medicine . A curious thing occurred in 1972, when a reward of $5,000 was offered for the remains.
A woman got in touch, wanting a sum of $500,000. She promptly vanished. Still, whether the disappearance was intentional or not, the curious tale of the Peking Man remains unresolved – a lost natural treasure that was never found.
The Vanishing Chamber: The Amber Room
It seems that it’s war that creates mysteries. And World War II certainly did create many. And in war, even entire rooms can vanish without a trace.
Yes, this lost treasure is, in fact, a room. Created by skilled German artisans in early 18th century Prussia, the Amber Room was a royal chamber, made from amber panels and thoroughly decorated with gold leaf. The chamber was then made a gift in 1716, from the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm – to his ally Tsar Peter the Great.
The Russians too called it the Amber Room – Янтарная комната – and had it installed in the summer residence of the tsar, at Catherine Palace near Sankt Petersburg. After the National Socialists invaded Russia in the Second World War, the Army Group North, under the command of Wilhelm Ritter Von Leeb, eventually focused on removing the precious treasures from the town.
The Amber Room, lost treasure, in the Catherine Palace, 1917. (Andrey Korzun / Public Domain )
Under expert supervision, the Germans dismantled the chamber in just 36 hours and transported it to Königsberg (today Kaliningrad). It remained there until 1945, but after that date, it vanished.
It was never found again. Whether the Allies, who fire-bombed Königsberg, pulverized this art piece into oblivion, or the National Socialists hid it somewhere, remains a mystery.
The Polish Royal Casket
When soldiers are faced with a great treasure, in the field of battle, the temptation for looting becomes far too great. Such is the story of the Szkatuła Królewska, the Polish Royal Casket. This reliquary was created in 1800, by a prominent Polish noblewoman Izabela Czartoryska, and was made to house the 73 priceless relics of the Polish royalty through the ages.
After its creation it was housed in the royal museum at the Temple of the Sybil, and later on in Krakow. When the Second World War came to Poland, the Royal Casket was transported to the town of Sieniawa, into the Czartorsky Family Museum, where it was hidden. Sadly, when the German Wehrmach soldiers entered the grounds in 1939, an ethnic German worker at the museum betrayed the location of the goods, and they were promptly looted by the soldiers and shared between them.
The Szkatuła Królewska, the Polish Royal Casket, housed a treasure of priceless Polish relics. (Polaco77~commonswiki / Public Domain )
Some of the items contained in this precious repository were the gold watch of King Stanisław I Leszczyński, a precious gold-and-red jasper cross of King Sigismund I of Poland, a gold watch of Queen Marie Casimire Louise de La Grange d’Arquien, a solid silver rosary of Queen Maria Karolina Zofia Felicja Leszczyńska, and many other priceless relics of Polish history. Where they are now is a mystery.
The Maharaja’s Splurge – Patiala Necklace
Maharaja Sir Bhupinder Singh, the ruler of the princely state of Patiala, commissioned a necklace made for himself by the renowned Cartier from France. This necklace was made in Paris in 1928 and was a mind-numbingly rich and luxurious display of wealth for the maharaja. This piece of jewelry contained a whopping 2,930 diamonds and many precious Burmese rubies.
Bhupinder Singh of Patiala in 1911, wearing the Patiala necklace, mind-numbingly treasure. (Jbarta / Public Domain )
It’s crowning piece was the “De Beers” at the time the seventh largest diamond on the planet – weighing 234 carats. Mr. Bhupinder died in 1938, and quite unsurprisingly, the luxury necklace disappeared soon after in 1948.
Nothing was known of its whereabouts, until the “De Beers” diamond reappeared at a Sotheby’s auction in Geneva. Some parts of the necklace were also discovered in 1998 at a second hand jewelry shop in London. But the rest of the diamonds, including the rubies, remain one of the mysterious lost treasures.
Jewish Menorah from the Second Temple
One of the more ancient mysteries dates back to the 2nd century AD, and it is centered around a luxury Jewish menorah that was housed in the Second Temple in Jerusalem. After the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 70 AD, this precious item was carried, as a trophy, back to Rome, where it was displayed in the Temple of Peace (Forum of Vespasian).
After this the fate of the menorah remains unknown. Some sources claim that the treasure was plundered by the Vandals after the Sack of Rome in 455 AD, who could have carried it to Carthage. Either way, this lost ancient treasure remains one of the unsolved mysteries, veiled in the centuries that passed.
The Righteous Judges Gone Missing
Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece is a masterpiece of European art, located in the Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent. It measures 11 x 15 feet (3.4 x 4.6 meters) and was created in 1432. But did you know that it is missing one of the original panels?
The 12 interior panels of the Ghent Altarpiece, art treasure. (Zen3500 / Public Domain )
The Righteous Judges, the title of the lower left panel, is the painting that was stolen from the cathedral in 1934. One of the mysterious thefts, it remains unresolved. The thief removed the panel in the night, leaving a mysterious note in its place: “Taken from Germany by the Treaty of Versaile”.
This refers to the fact that the whole altarpiece was taken by Germany in the First World War. In days following the theft, the thief exchanged a few letters with the law, but never reached an agreement.
That same year, one Arsène Goedertier, on his deathbed, claimed that he was the thief and that the panel “rests in a place where neither I, nor anybody else, can take it away without arousing the attention of the public”. This precious art-piece was never recovered, and to this day, there remains a police detective in Ghent assigned to the case of the missing panel.
Tucker’s Cross – Now You See It…
In 1955, a marine explorer and treasure hunter, Teddy Tucker, stumbled upon a gold cross in his searches in Bermuda. Clueless at first, Tucker would later learn that the 22 carat solid gold cross with emeralds was the single most valuable object ever recovered from a shipwreck, and that it was possibly the remains of the Spanish galleon San Pedro which sunk in 1594. He would also discover many, many other valuables at the same site.
The gold cross was housed in the Aquarium Museum in Bermuda. But in 1975, it was discovered that the cross was stolen. Tucker entered the museum and noticed that the thief carefully replaced the item in the display case with a poorly made plastic replica. In a Bond-esque turn of events, this extremely valuable item vanished without a trace. It was never again found.
Buried By Time and Dust
And thus, ends our little tale of the world’s greatest lost treasures. And once such items become lost, they quickly take a sharp turn in to the realm of mysteries. Vanished without a trace? Or expertly hushed up? We’ll never know.
But it is certain that the history of art and treasure is full of intrigue and greedy hands. From war looting, to legendary treasures, to James Bond-styled grand thefts – there’s a bit of everything in the stories of these spectacular treasures that have never been found.
Top image: Lost treasures. Source: dbrus / Adobe Stock.
Alpozzi, A. 2017. Mussolini e la spada di Protettore dell’islam – Quando il fascismo era amico dei musulmani . L’Italia Coloniale. [Online] Available at:
Berg, D., and Berg, D. 1991. Bermuda Shipwrecks: A Vacationing Diver’s Guide to Bermuda’s Shipwrecks . Aqua Explorers.
Fanthorpe, P., and Fanthorpe, L. 2009. Secrets of the World’s Undiscovered Treasures . Dundurn Press.
Ham, A. 2007. Libia. Lonely Planet. [Online] Available at: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/libya
Mayers, L. 2019. Guide of the World’s Most Valuable Missing Treasures . Books on Demand.
Lamb, L. 2012. Oak Island Family: The Restall Hunt for Buried Treasure . Dundurn.
Seagrave, S., and Seagrave, P. 2003. Gold Warriors: America’s Secret Recovery of Yamashita’s Gold . Verso.
Sora, S. 1999. The Lost Treasure of the Knights Templar: Solving the Oak Island Mystery . Destiny Books.
Williams, M. 2006. Mussolini’s Propaganda Abroad: Subversion of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, 1935-1940 . Routledge.