7 Missing Historical Treasures That May Never Be Seen Again

The Amber Room in the Catherine Palace
The Amber Room in the Catherine Palace
Branson DeCou, Wikimedia // Public Domain

For all the television shows that set out to solve the world’s great mysteries, and the intrepid adventurers hunting for lost artifacts, some of the most famous treasures of history are still missing. These include one of the most dazzling rooms ever made, a giant yellow diamond, and the work of a renowned Greek poetess. Here are just a few of these enigmas.

1. THE AMBER ROOM

Designed in the 18th century by German sculptor Andreas Schlüter and Danish amber artist Gottfried Wolfram, and gifted to Russia in 1716, the Amber Room of Catherine Palace was the pride of the Saint Petersburg area. Lavishly decorated in jewels, gilding, and, of course, panels of amber, it was sometimes called the "Eighth Wonder of the World."

When the German army neared Saint Petersburg during World War II, the curators at Catherine Palace knew they had to hide this treasure. They tried to take it apart, but the dry amber crumbled in their hands; instead they hid it behind wallpaper. German soldiers found the Amber Room anyway, and broke it down into pieces that were packed in crates and shipped to Königsberg, then part of Germany (now part of Russia). For a time, the Amber Room was installed in the Königsberg castle museum. After that, its fate gets fuzzy. Some researchers believe it was destroyed in the bombardments of the war, while others think that it’s still hidden somewhere. Despite periodic claims of it being found—and verified remnants turning up in 1997—most of it remains missing. In 2003, a reconstruction of the Amber Room was unveiled near Saint Petersburg, so visitors can at least get a glimpse of its lost glory.

2. SAPPHO'S POEMS

Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema, Sappho and Alcaeus (1881)Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ancient sources state that the Greek poet Sappho penned nine volumes of writing, but only a couple of full poems—and a few hundred lines on shreds of papyrus and potsherds—survive. Some contain just a handful of words, yet they hint at the passion in her work: "I desire/And I crave," one remnant reads. Many of these bits survive thanks to her popularity in antiquity, since her writing was frequently quoted in other sources.

There may be more of Sappho's work to discover. A late 19th- to early 20th-century excavation at a trash dump in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, turned up valuable fragments of her poems. As recently as 2014, two works on papyrus fragments were identified by an Oxford papyrologist. With any luck, there may still be scattered remains of her poems to unearth in the detritus of the classical world.

3. THE FLORENTINE DIAMOND

According to legend, Charles the Bold—the Duke of Burgundy—carried this 132.27-carat yellow diamond into the 1477 Battle of Nancy as a talisman. The treasure did little to protect him, however, and he fell along with his gem. His mutilated corpse is said to have later been recovered from the battlefield, but the diamond was gone, supposedly picked up by a scavenger who sold it for two francs because he thought it was just glass.

However, in the 1920s the art historian Nello Tarchiani did archival research that revealed the diamond likely had no connection to the duke. The gemstone had originated in southern India, where it stayed until the Portuguese seized the area in the 1500s. Soon afterward, it made its way to Europe and into the hands of a series of illustrious owners, including Ferdinand de’ Medici, the Duke of Tuscany, in 1601. It was in the treasury of the Medicis in Florence that it got its name—the Florentine Diamond—and most likely its glistening, 126-facet double rose cut.

When Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici, the last of the Medici ruling family, died in 1743, the diamond didn't stay with the treasure trove she bequeathed to the Tuscan state. Instead, Francis Stephan of Lorraine (who later became the Grand Duke of Tuscany and Holy Roman Emperor) bought it for his wife, Empress Maria Teresa, herself at the end of the House of Habsburg line. For a time, the Florentine diamond became part of the crown jewels in Vienna. Then the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed after World War I, and the diamond, it’s believed, was carried into exile in Switzerland by its last emperor, Charles I.

But where is it now? There are many theories on its disappearance, including that it was sold by the exiled emperor, and perhaps cut into smaller gems for that purpose. Others posit that it was stolen and spirited to South America. With no trace of the diamond in years, its whereabouts remain a mystery.

4. FABERGÉ EGGS

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

The legendary House of Fabergé was once the largest jeweler in Russia, employing 500 designers and craftsmen to transform everything from mantel clocks to cigarette cases into delicate and elaborate works of art. Their most famous achievement is the series of jewel-drenched Easter eggs they produced for Czars Alexander III and Nicholas II, which the Russian rulers gave as gifts to their wives and mothers. Each egg contained a surprise, from the Trans-Siberian Railway Egg (with a wind-up train made from gold and platinum) to the Bay Tree Egg (shaped like a tree, with a mechanical singing bird emerging from its branches). After the Russian Revolution overthrew the Romanov Dynasty—and the imperial family was executed—the new Soviet rulers seized the eggs. Lenin was interested in preserving such cultural heritage, but Stalin saw them as economic resources, and the eggs were sold off. Out of the 50 Imperial Eggs (as the eggs created for the czars are known), seven are missing.

Information on the lost eggs is sparse. There are few photographs—the only image we have of one of the eggs, the Cherub with Chariot Egg, is a reflection in the glass of a display case. Sometimes the surprises inside are detailed in records, and in other cases they remain a mystery. However, in 2012 a Midwest man who had bought what he thought was a fancy doodad for scrap gold happened to do an internet search on the name on the little clock inside: “Vacheron Constantin.” He discovered that his trinket, which he’d bought for $14,000, was one of the lost Imperial Eggs, worth $33 million.

5. CROWN JEWELS OF IRELAND

Lord Dudley, Grand Master of the Order of St. Patrick, wearing what's often called the Irish Crown JewelsNational Library of Australia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On July 6, 1907, regalia belonging to the Grand Master of the Order of St. Patrick—referred to as the "Crown Jewels of Ireland"—were discovered to be missing, the keys boldly left hanging in the safe’s lock. The pricey pieces, which included a diamond star and badge, had been presented to the order of knights in 1830. As added insult, five collars of Knight Members of the Order had also been spirited away.

Security was perhaps a bit lax. A safe room had been built for Dublin Castle in 1903, yet the safe that protected the jewels was too big to fit in the door, so it was kept in a library strongroom.

An investigation was immediately launched, but a century later, the case is unsolved. One rumor is that the investigation was halted under the orders of Edward VII because it ended up touching on a sexual scandal at Dublin Castle. One top suspect is Francis Shackleton, second-in-command at the castle, and brother to the famed explorer Ernest Shackleton; some say he may have been trying to raise funds for his brother's polar expedition.

6. ART FROM THE ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM

Empty frames at the Isabella Stewart Gardner MuseumFederal Bureau of Investigation, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the early morning of March 18, 1990, the security guards at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston buzzed in two men claiming to be police officers. Once inside, they handcuffed the guards and revealed their true intention: stealing art. They made off with 13 works valued at $500 million, the biggest unsolved art theft in the world.

Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas, and Manet works are among the stolen art, although strangely, the robbers also opted to take a bronze eagle from the top of a Napoleonic flag and an ancient Chinese beaker rather than other, more valuable objects nearby. Because the museum’s collection and layout are permanent—both the legacy of the late art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner—the frames of the missing artworks are kept empty, a memorial and a reminder that the burglars are still at large. The FBI believes the paintings made their way to organized crime circles in Philadelphia, but haven’t had a lead since 2003. Currently, the reward is $10 million for information leading to the artworks’ recovery.

7. THE HONJŌ MASAMUNE

At the end of World War II, citizens in Japan were required to turn over privately owned weapons, including historic pieces. Among them was one of the most famous swords ever made: the Kamakura-period Honjō Masamune. Created by Masamune, who lived circa 1260-1340 and is often considered Japan’s greatest sword maker, the sword was celebrated for its strength and artistry.

Its last owner was Tokugawa Iemasa, who brought the Honjō Masamune, along with other heirloom swords, to a Tokyo police station in compliance with the Allied orders. They were handed off to someone in the Foreign Liquidations Commission of AFWESPAC (Army Forces, Western Pacific), then disappeared. Some surrendered swords from this era were brought back to the United States by American soldiers, while others were melted or tossed in the sea. Today, the fate of the Honjō Masamune is unknown.

Amazon’s Big Fall Sale Features Deals on Electronics, Kitchen Appliances, and Home Décor

Dash/Keurig
Dash/Keurig

If you're looking for deals on items like Keurigs, BISSELL vacuums, and essential oil diffusers, it's usually pretty slim pickings until the holiday sales roll around. Thankfully, Amazon is starting these deals a little earlier with their Big Fall Sale, where customers can get up to 20 percent off everything from home decor to WFH essentials and kitchen gadgets. Now you won’t have to wait until Black Friday for the deal you need. Make sure to see all the deals that the sale has to offer here and check out our favorites below.

Electronics

Dash/Amazon

- BISSELL Lightweight Upright Vacuum Cleaner $170 (save $60)

- Dash Deluxe Air Fryer $80 (save $20)

- Dash Rapid 6-Egg Cooker $17 (save $3)

- Keurig K-Café Single Coffee Maker $169 (save $30)

- COMFEE Toaster Oven $29 (save $9)

- AmazonBasics 1500W Oscillating Ceramic Heater $31 (save $4)

Home office Essentials

HP/Amazon

- HP Neverstop Laser Printer $250 (save $30)

- HP ScanJet Pro 2500 f1 Flatbed OCR Scanner $274 (save $25)

- HP Printer Paper (500 Sheets) $5 (save $2)

- Mead Composition Books Pack of 5 Ruled Notebooks $11 (save $2)

- Swingline Desktop Hole Punch $7 (save $17)

- Officemate OIC Achieva Side Load Letter Tray $15 (save $7)

- PILOT G2 Premium Rolling Ball Gel Pens 12-Pack $10 (save $3)

Toys and games

Selieve/Amazon

- Selieve Toys Old Children's Walkie Talkies $17 (save $7)

- Yard Games Giant Tumbling Timbers $59 (save $21)

- Duckura Jump Rocket Launchers $11 (save $17)

- EXERCISE N PLAY Automatic Launcher Baseball Bat $14 (save $29)

- Holy Stone HS165 GPS Drones with 2K HD Camera $95 (save $40)

Home Improvement

DEWALT/Amazon

- DEWALT 20V MAX LED Hand Held Work Light $54 (save $65)

- Duck EZ Packing Tape with Dispenser, 6 Rolls $11 (save $6)

- Bissell MultiClean Wet/Dry Garage Auto Vacuum $111 (save $39)

- Full Circle Sinksational Sink Strainer with Stopper $5 (save $2)

Home Décor

NECA/Amazon

- A Christmas Story 20-Inch Leg Lamp Prop Replica by NECA $41 save $5

- SYLVANIA 100 LED Warm White Mini Lights $8 (save 2)

- Yankee Candle Large Jar Candle Vanilla Cupcake $17 (save $12)

- Malden 8-Opening Matted Collage Picture Frame $20 (save $8)

- Lush Decor Blue and Gray Flower Curtains Pair $57 (save $55)

- LEVOIT Essential Oil Diffuser $25 (save $5)

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

12 Surprising Facts About T.S. Eliot

Getty
Getty

Born September 26, 1888, modernist poet and playwright Thomas Stearns (T.S.) Eliot is best known for writing "The Waste Land." But the 1948 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was also a prankster who coined a perennially popular curse word, and created the characters brought to life in the Broadway musical "Cats." In honor of Eliot’s birthday, here are a few things you might not know about the writer.

1. T.S. Eliot enjoyed holding down "real" jobs.

Throughout his life, Eliot supported himself by working as a teacher, banker, and editor. He could only write poetry in his spare time, but he preferred it that way. In a 1959 interview with The Paris Review, Eliot remarked that his banking and publishing jobs actually helped him be a better poet. “I feel quite sure that if I’d started by having independent means, if I hadn’t had to bother about earning a living and could have given all my time to poetry, it would have had a deadening influence on me,” Eliot said. “The danger, as a rule, of having nothing else to do is that one might write too much rather than concentrating and perfecting smaller amounts.”

2. One of the longest-running Broadway shows ever exists thanks to T.S. Eliot.

Getty Images

In 1939, Eliot published a book of poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which included feline-focused verses he likely wrote for his godson. In stark contrast to most of Eliot's other works—which are complex and frequently nihilistic—the poems here were decidedly playful. For Eliot, there was never any tension between those two modes: “One wants to keep one’s hand in, you know, in every type of poem, serious and frivolous and proper and improper. One doesn’t want to lose one’s skill,” he explained in his Paris Review interview. A fan of Eliot's Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats since childhood, in the late '70s, Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to set many of Eliot's poems to music. The result: the massively successful stage production "Cats," which opened in London in 1981 and, after its 1982 NYC debut, became one of the longest-running Broadway shows of all time.

3. Three hours per day was his T.S. Eliot’s writing limit.

Eliot wrote poems and plays partly on a typewriter and partly with pencil and paper. But no matter what method he used, he tried to always keep a three hour writing limit. “I sometimes found at first that I wanted to go on longer, but when I looked at the stuff the next day, what I’d done after the three hours were up was never satisfactory," he explained. "It’s much better to stop and think about something else quite different.”

4. T.S. Eliot considered "Four Quartets" to be his best work.

In 1927, Eliot converted to Anglicanism and became a British citizen. His poems and plays in the 1930s and 1940s—including "Ash Wednesday," "Murder in the Cathedral," and "Four Quartets"—reveal themes of religion, faith, and divinity. He considered "Four Quartets,” a set of four poems that explored philosophy and spirituality, to be his best writing. Out of the four, the last is his favorite.

5. T.S. Eliot had an epistolary friendship with Groucho Marx.

Eliot wrote comedian Groucho Marx a fan letter in 1961. Marx replied, gave Eliot a photo of himself, and started a correspondence with the poet. After writing back and forth for a few years, they met in real life in 1964, when Eliot hosted Marx and his wife for dinner at his London home. The two men, unfortunately, didn’t hit it off. The main issue, according to a letter Marx wrote his brother: the comedian had hoped he was in for a "Literary Evening," and tried to discuss King Lear. All Eliot wanted to talk about was Marx's 1933 comedy Duck Soup. (In a 2014 piece for The New Yorker, Lee Siegel suggests there had been "simmering tension" all along, even in their early correspondence.)

6. Ezra Pound tried to crowdfund T.S. Eliot’s writing.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1921, Eliot took a few months off from his banking job after a nervous breakdown. During this time, he finished writing "The Waste Land," which his friend and fellow poet Ezra Pound edited. Pound, with the help of other Bohemian writers, set up Bel Esprit, a fund to raise money for Eliot so he could quit his bank job to focus on writing full-time. Pound managed to get several subscribers to pledge money to Eliot, but Eliot didn’t want to give up his career, which he genuinely liked. The Liverpool Post, Chicago Daily Tribune, and the New York Tribune reported on Pound’s crowdfunding campaign, incorrectly stating that Eliot had taken the money, but continued working at the bank. After Eliot protested, the newspapers printed a retraction.

7. Writing in French helped T.S. Eliot overcome writer’s block.

After studying at Harvard, Eliot spent a year in Paris and fantasized about writing in French rather than English. Although little ever came of that fantasy, during a period of writer’s block, Eliot did manage to write a few poems in French. “That was a very curious thing which I can’t altogether explain. At that period I thought I’d dried up completely. I hadn’t written anything for some time and was rather desperate,” he told The Paris Review. “I started writing a few things in French and found I could, at that period ...Then I suddenly began writing in English again and lost all desire to go on with French. I think it was just something that helped me get started again."

8. T.S. Eliot set off stink bombs in London with his nephew.

Eliot, whose friends and family called him Tom, was supposedly a big prankster. When his nephew was young, Eliot took him to a joke shop in London to purchase stink bombs, which they promptly set off in the lobby of a nearby hotel. Eliot was also known to hand out exploding cigars, and put whoopee cushions on the chairs of his guests.

9. T.S. Eliot may have been the first person to write the word "bulls**t."

In the early 1910s, Eliot wrote a poem called "The Triumph of Bulls**t." Like an early 20th-century Taylor Swift tune, the poem was Eliot’s way of dissing his haters. In 1915, he submitted the poem to a London magazine … which rejected it for publication. The word bulls**t isn’t in the poem itself, only the poem’s title, but The Oxford English Dictionary credits the poem with being the first time the curse word ever appeared in print.

10. T.S. Eliot coined the expression “April is the cruelest month.”

Thanks to Eliot, the phrase “April is the cruelest month” has become an oft-quoted, well-known expression. It comes from the opening lines of "The Waste Land”: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”

11. T.S. Eliot held some troubling beliefs about religion.

Over the years, Eliot made some incredibly problematic remarks about Jewish people, including arguing that members of a society should have a shared religious background, and that a large number of Jews creates an undesirably heterogeneous culture. Many of his early writing also featured offensive portrayals of Jewish characters. (As one critic, Joseph Black, pointed out in a 2010 edition of "The Waste Land" and Other Poems, "Few published works displayed the consistency of association that one finds in Eliot's early poetry between what is Jewish and what is squalid and distasteful.") Eliot's defenders argue that the poet's relationship with Jewish people was much more nuanced that his early poems suggest, and point to his close relationships with a number of Jewish writers and artists.

12. You can watch a movie based on T.S. Eliot’s (really bad) marriage.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Tom & Viv, a 1994 film starring Willem Dafoe, explores Eliot’s tumultuous marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a dancer and socialite. The couple married in 1915, a few months after they met, but the relationship quickly soured. Haigh-Wood had constant physical ailments, mental health problems, and was addicted to ether. The couple spent a lot of time apart and separated in the 1930s; she died in a mental hospital in 1947. Eliot would go on to remarry at the age of 68—his 30-year-old secretary, Esmé Valerie Fletcher—and would later reveal that his state of despair during his first marriage was the catalyst and inspiration for "The Waste Land."

This story has been updated for 2020.