War has always brought chaos, resulting in opportunities for plunder and pillage. In particular, during World War II, an unparalleled number of priceless artifacts and artworks were destroyed and looted from Europe and Asia. Nazis, for example, looted cultural property from museums, private homes and palaces, some of it to build Adolf Hitler’s proposed Führermuseum, but other armies also looted it for their own purposes.
When the second world war ended, tales of actual and imagined lost treasures blended together, especially rumors of stolen Nazi gold. Some of the items on this list may be more verifiable than others, but all of them have motivated treasure hunters to search for them.
1. Yamashita’s Gold
Yamashita Tomoyuki was a General in the Japanese Empire during the period 1944-1945 when Japan occupied the Philippines. Legend has it he also carried out Emperor Hirohito’s orders to bury gold and treasure in tunnels in the Philippines that were booby-trapped with trip mines and gas canisters. The treasure was apparently intended to help rebuild Japan after the war.
Since then, many claims have been made regarding where the gold ended up. In a criminal case filed in the United States, a Filipino locksmith named Rogelio Roxas claimed the he discovered some of the gold hidden in the 1970s. He claimed a few years later that Ferdinand Marcos ordered police to steal the gold. The legend explains why there are still treasure hunts for “Yamashita’s gold” in the Philippines.
2. The Amber Room
The Amber Room was designed in the early 18th century; it was a floor-to-ceiling set of floor-to-ceiling panels decorated with fossilized amber, semi-precious stones, and gold leaf. In 1716, Frederick William I of Prussia gifted the panels, designed to cover 180 square feet, as a symbol of Prussia and Russia’s alliance against Sweden to the Russian Empire’s Peter the Great.
When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the Amber Room was located in a chamber of the Catherine Palace in the Russian town of Pushkin. Believing the room to be a piece of German art that belonged to them, the Nazis dismantled and shipped it to a castle museum in Königsberg, Germany (now Kaliningrad, Russia). That has to be th worst case of ‘Indian Giving’ in history. In 1944, allied bombings destroyed the city, the castle museum, and it is believed that the Amber Room was also destroyed. However, this did not stop treasure hunters from searching for the lost room.
3. Rommel’s Gold
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who the treasure is named after.
Nazi gold is considered to be one of the most mythologized of WWII treasures. In 1943, while the Nazis occupied Tunisia, Nazis were reported to have stolen a significant amount of gold from Jews on the island of Djerba. They sent gold to Corsica, an island situated between France and Italy, but it is said to have sank in the course of its trip to Germany.
Although Rommel is not likely to be directly involved in this particular theft, this treasure is often known as Rommel’s gold. In any event, the legend has not only motivated real treasure hunters, but also fictional treasure hunters. In Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service published in 1963, two divers were reported to have been killed while looking for “Rommel’s treasure”.”
4. Peking Man Fossils
Not all lost treasures from the Second World War were man-made. In September 1941, China sent 200 early human fossils to the United States in order to keep them safe from Japanese invasion. Nevertheless, these so-called “Peking Man” fossils never arrived.
Some people think the fossils were destroyed, while others think they are still intact. In 2012, researchers suggested they might have been buried on an abandoned U.S. military base in China, covered by an asphalt parking lot. Fortunately, scientists can still study the fossils today due to the fact that Chinese researchers made castings of them before they disappeared.
5. Raphael’s ‘Portrait of a Young Man’
The Nazis stolen many paintings and artworks during the Second World War, but one of the most famous and historically significant ones they took is Portrait of a Young Man by Raphael. In 1939, the Nazis stole this painting from the Prince Czartoryski Museum in Kraków, Poland.
The painting was originally given to Hans Frank who ran the Nazi General Government in Poland. During the war, it traveled to Berlin, Dresden, Linz, then back to Kraków, where Frank hung it in Wawel Castle. However, when U.S. forces arrested Frank at the castle one year later, the painting was missing, along with more than 800 other artifacts. Over 75 years later, there is still no sign of the lost masterpiece. In the movie ‘Monuments Men’ it was fictionalized as being destroyed in a fire, deliberately burned by the Nazi’s.