6 Legendary Lost Treasures of World War II: War has always brought chaos and with it an opportunity for looting and looting. This was especially true during the Second World War, when countless pieces of art, artifacts and other priceless treasures were destroyed and removed from Europe and Asia-Pacific. The Nazis, in particular, systematically looted cultural property from museums, private homes and royal palaces, some to help Adolf Hitler build his Führermuseum museum project, but other armies also took their own spoils.
At the end of the war, stories of real and imagined lost treasures mixed, especially with regard to rumors of stolen Nazi gold. Some of the items on this list are more verifiable than others, but all of them have motivated treasure hunters to seek them out.
1. Yamashita’s Gold
WATCH: The dictator steals a treasure
Yamashita Tomoyuki was a general of the Japanese Empire who defended the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in 1944 and 1945. According to legend, he also carried out orders for Emperor Hirohito will hide gold and treasures in tunnels in the Philippines, trapped by mines, gas cans and the like. The plan, apparently, was to use the treasury to rebuild Japan after the war.
Since then, there have been many complaints about the destination of the gold. In a court case in the United States, a Filipino locksmith by the name of Rogelio Roxas claimed discovered some of the hidden gold in the 1970s and that the Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos later sent strongmen to steal it. The legend also provoked treasure hunts for “Yamashita gold” in the Philippines, which continue today.
2. The amber room
Designed in the early 18th century, the amber room was a set of floor-to-ceiling wall panels decorated with fossilized amber, semi-precious stones and covered with gold leaf. In 1716, the King of Prussia Frederick William I donated the panels, designed to cover 180 square feet, to the Russian Emperor Peter the Great as a symbol of Prussia and the Russian alliance against Sweden.
When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the amber room occupied a room at the Catherine Palace in the Russian city of Pushkin. Believing that the piece was German art that legitimately belonged to them, the Nazis dismantled the piece and shipped it to the castle museum in Königsberg, Germany (now Kaliningrad, Russia). In 1944, Allied bombing destroyed the city, the castle museum and possibly the amber room, but that did not stop the treasure hunters from trying to locate the lost piece.
3. Rommel’s Gold
One of the most mythical types of World War II treasure is stolen Nazi gold. In 1943, during the German occupation of Tunisia, the Nazis allegedly stole a large amount of gold from the Jewish people on the island of Djerba. They shipped the gold to Corsica, an island between the coasts of France and Italy, but it would have sunk during his trip from Corsica to Germany.
This rumored treasure is often known as “Rommel’s gold” after Erwin Rommel, a Nazi general who waged terror campaigns against the Jewish people in North Africa, although Rommel was probably not involved in this particular robbery. In all cases, the legend motivated the real and fictitious treasure hunters. In Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel in 1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, two divers were reportedly killed while searching for “Rommel’s treasure”.
READ MORE: Sunken Nazi Gold and 4 Other Treasures Never Found
4. Beijing human fossils
Not all of the lost treasures of World War II are artificial. In September 1941, China sent the first 200 human fossils to the United States to protect them in the event of an invasion of Japan. However, these “Peking Man” fossils, as they were called, never arrived.
Some have speculated that the fossils were destroyed, but others hope they are still there. In 2012, researchers suggested that they may have been buried in a former U.S. navy base in China and covered by an asphalt parking lot. Fortunately, Chinese researchers made casts of the fossils before they disappeared, so that scientists can still study them today.
5. “Portrait of a young man” by Raphaël
The Nazis stole many paintings during World War II, but one of the most famous and historically important to disappear is Portrait of a young man by the revered Italian Renaissance artist Raphael. The Nazis filtered painting from the Prince Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, Poland, in 1939.
At first, the painting went to Hans Frank, who led the Nazi general government in Poland. During the war, he traveled to Berlin, Dresden and Linz before returning to Krakow, where Frank hung him at Wawel Castle. However, when American troops arrested Frank at the castle that year, the painting – as well as more than 800 other artifacts – was missing. Seventy-five years later, there is still no record of the lost masterpiece.
READ MORE: Four works of art looted by the Nazis identified and returned to a Jewish family
6. S.S. Minden
En route from Rio de Janeiro to Germany in 1939, the Nazi ship S.S. Minden encountered a British ship off the coast of Iceland. Supposedly, the Nazis sank their own ship to prevent the British from finding their cargo, which, according to legend, was a treasure of gold. (What else?)
In 2017 and 2018, a UK-based company attempted to locate the sunken ship and its reputed gold reserve. The cartography carried out by the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute made it possible to locate the possible site of the sinking, but so far, no one has been able to find any treasure there.