16 Priceless Things We've Lost Forever

A reconstruction of the skull of Peking man (Homo erectus pekinensis)
A reconstruction of the skull of Peking man (Homo erectus pekinensis) / CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images

From natural wonders like Guairá Falls to literary works from Hemingway and Byron to paintings by Picasso and Renoir, here's a list of just a few priceless things that are gone forever, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.

1. A Nude Watercolor by August Renoir

Walter Chrysler, Jr., the son of the Chrysler corporation founder, was active in the arts for his entire life. As an adult, he helped develop the collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. But it was a piece he purchased as a teen that got him into some hot water at boarding school. At 14, Chrysler purchased a small painting that featured a nude woman and proudly displayed it in his dorm room. Chrysler’s dorm master apparently found the work obscene, and took the liberty of destroying it. Unlike the vast majority of naked pictures you might find in a teenager’s room, though, Chrysler’s nude was actually painted by Auguste Renoir.

2. Pablo Picasso's Le Peintre

While we’re talking art, let’s talk about the sad fate that befell a Pablo Picasso painting dubbed Le Peintre. (Incidentally, Picasso used that title, which translates to "The Painter," for multiple pieces, so if you’ve seen a different Le Peintre hanging in a gallery, that’s why.) In 1998, the painting we're talking about was being transported via the cargo hold of a SwissAir jet. Tragically, the plane crashed off the coast of Nova Scotia, killing all 229 people on board. Though much of the cargo was eventually recovered, the only trace of the $1.5-million-dollar painting ever found was a 20-centimeter scrap of canvas.

3. Ernest Hemingway’s Lost Works

In fall 1922, Hemingway was living in Paris as a correspondent for the Toronto Star. In November, he traveled to Switzerland to cover the Lausanne Conference, and asked his wife Hadley to take the train and join him. She agreed and packed all of Hemingway’s manuscripts so he could show them to a new colleague. Upon boarding the train, Hadley stowed her bags and went to purchase some water. When she returned, the bag containing all of Hemingway’s manuscripts, including the carbon copies, was gone.

When Hadley arrived in Switzerland and broke the bad news, Hemingway purchased a ticket to Paris and went to their apartment to verify that all of his work was gone. As he would later recount in A Moveable Feast, “It was true alright and I remember what I did in the night after I let myself into the flat and found it was true.”

4. Lord Byron's Memoir

As sad as the Hemingway thefts are, an earlier incident has been called “the greatest crime in literary history.” Before his death, Lord Byron wrote a memoir that was supposed to be pretty juicy, revealing scandalous details about his tumultuous marriage and alleged affairs—in short, a sure-fire bestseller. But upon his death, his three closest friends, including fellow poet Thomas Moore, got together and tossed the whole manuscript into the fire. Why? The trio argued that they were preserving their friend’s reputation and protecting his family, but historians think they may have had other motives: jealousy and their own self-interest. For example, one of the men involved, Byron’s longtime friend John Cam Hobhouse, was a Member of Parliament—and presumably didn’t want his reputation sullied by his association with the salacious details. Whatever the motivation was, what was no doubt a fascinating memoir is now lost to the ages.

5. The Marx Brothers' Movie Debut

Before they created some of the greatest comedy flicks of all time, the Marx Brothers made their feature film debut in a movie called Humor Risk. While it would be fascinating to get a glimpse of the iconic comedians so early in their film careers, it doesn’t appear we’ll ever get the chance. According to Groucho Marx, Humor Risk disappeared after the premiere, perhaps at the hands of Groucho himself, who was allegedly disappointed with the poor reception it received. Another tale says the movie was left in the screening box overnight and accidentally thrown out the next day.

6. Peking Man

In the 1920s, paleontologists made a huge discovery in the caves of Zhoukoudian just southwest of Beijing: a number of teeth and bones that belonged to a previously unknown species of hominid. They dubbed their find Sinanthropus pekinensis, now classified as Homo erectus pekinensis, but better known as Peking Man. Throughout the 1930s, paleontologists continued to uncover Peking Man fossils at the site. When Japan invaded China during the second Sino-Japanese War in the late ‘30s, authorities worried about the safety of the priceless fossils and a plan was devised to ship them to the United States for safekeeping. In 1941, 200 fossils were packed into boxes for Marines to take back to the States—and, as far as we know, that was the last time anyone saw them. No one knows where Peking Man ended up, but there’s no shortage of theories. Some think the fossils were intercepted and stolen by Japanese soldiers, who either took them back to their country or dropped them into the ocean. Others think the Marines did take the fossils to the United States, but that the U.S. has quietly taken possession of them. One recent theory is that the fossils are buried under a parking lot in China, which was, at the time, a U.S. military base. Despite many investigations, Peking Man has never reappeared.

7. The Amber Room

Priceless treasures going missing under suspicious circumstances is a fairly common wartime experience. The Amber Room is one of the most famous examples of wartime looting—and its disappearance is a historical mystery that has yet to be solved. Often referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World, the Amber Room was a gift from Prussia to Peter the Great in 1716. The “room” was really a series of panels that were semi-permanently attached to the walls of an existing room; they were shipped to Russia in 18 large boxes and were ultimately installed at Catherine Palace, near St. Petersburg. After renovations were complete, the Amber Room covered 180 square feet in six tons of amber and semi-precious stones (and each panel was backed in gold leaf). At one point, historians estimated that the room would’ve been worth about $142 million in today’s dollars, which explains why it was such a tempting target for Nazis to loot.

Curators of the Amber Room knew it was in danger, so they attempted to hide it under wallpaper. It didn’t work: Nazi soldiers stormed the palace, tore the Amber room down in about 36 hours, and shipped it to Königsberg, Germany, where it was reassembled in the castle museum. As WWII neared its end, the museum’s director packed it back up into crates, worried that the Amber Room would suffer the same fate in Germany that it had in Russia.

The castle was severely damaged by the end of the war, and the Amber Room may have been destroyed, because it disappeared without a trace. Almost. In 1997, German art detectives were tipped off that someone was trying to sell a piece of the Amber Room. They raided the location in question and did, indeed, find one of the mosaic panels. But the guy who was selling it was the son of a deceased soldier who likely stole it during the war, and he had no information as to the whereabouts of the rest of the room.

8. Steven Spielberg's First Feature-Length Film

In 1964, a 17-year-old kid named Steven Spielberg enlisted his sister, his friends, his mother, and his high school marching band to help him create his first feature-length film, a 135-minute movie called Firelight. Sometime after its only public screening, for an audience of about 500 people, Spielberg loaned a few of the film reels to a producer to show off his skills. When he went back to the producer’s office to retrieve the film, the producer had been fired and the reels were nowhere to be found. Though most of the movie is lost to history, about 3 minutes and 50 seconds of grainy footage can be found online today. Spielberg has said that the early film helped lead to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, so maybe all was not lost, after all.

9. The Early Run of Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show

Opportunities to see late-night host Johnny Carson at the beginning of his three-decade run on The Tonight Show are pretty limited: Less than 1 percent of the footage from 1962 to 1972 has been accounted for. Back in the day, tape was expensive, so it was common practice to record over it for other projects; the original TV recording of the first Super Bowl met a similar fate, although a grainy, home-recorded copy later emerged. In 2012, an archivist discovered a single reel of Tonight Show footage dating from 1963, but the vast majority of the show’s early run will likely never be seen by anyone again. Bet Carnac the Magnificent didn’t see that one coming.

10. The Old Man of the Mountain

If you want to get into the truly priceless, it’s hard to beat natural landmarks that took thousands of years to form. The Old Man of the Mountain was a series of granite ledges that strikingly resembled a rugged profile set in the face of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The Old Man became famous—Daniel Webster wrote about him, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story "The Great Stone Face” is said to take inspiration from him, and he appeared on official New Hampshire State … everything, including the emblem, state license plate, state quarter, and state route markers.

However, after a long and fruitful life, the Old Man of the Mountain collapsed down the mountainside in 2003. No foul play was suspected, but New Hampshire mourned the loss of their patriarch nonetheless.

11. Eye of the Needle

Montana knows just how New Hampshire feels. In 1997, the state lost the Eye of the Needle, a distinctive, 11-foot landmark akin to the famous arched rock formations in Utah’s Arches National Park. Meriwether Lewis even described the area in his journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, so it was especially upsetting when the Eye of the Needle was found, completely eyeless, in May 1997. The collapse was originally blamed on teenage vandals, but after a more thorough investigation, some researchers said the damage was likely caused by natural erosion. No definitive cause has ever been found, so the destruction of this priceless landmark may always remain a mystery.

12. Guairá Falls

Then, there’s the time we put a stop to nature’s stunning beauty on purpose. Guairá Falls at the border of Brazil and Paraguay was an incredible display of waterfalls with a total drop of 375 feet and a roar that could be heard 20 miles away. To put it in perspective, it’s said that Guairá Falls had twice the flow rate of Niagara Falls, which equates to more than 6000 tons of water per second. Some estimates put the flow rate more than two times higher than that, a truly staggering display of power. When the 4.8-mile Itaipu Dam was erected, though, it completely submerged the falls. To be fair, the dam does provide about 75 percent of the electricity used in Paraguay and over 10 percent of the electricity used in Brazil, so it’s not hard to see why the decision to build the dam was made.

13. Hawaii's East Island

Waterfalls are one thing, but how about the virtual disappearance of an entire island? That happened in Hawaii in 2018. It wasn’t one of the big 6, but the 11-acre East Island, a breeding ground for threatened species such as the Hawaiian monk seal and the green sea turtle. Hurricane Walaka decimated the low-lying island. Although researchers expected East Island to erode slowly over the course of the next century, they were floored when it happened literally overnight.

14. Thomas Jefferson's Donations to the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress has been burned not once, but twice. The first time was in 1814 when the British burned much of Washington, taking out 3000 volumes in the Library of Congress. Thomas Jefferson helped rebuild the library’s collection by suggesting that Congress purchase most of his personal library, which amounted to over 6000 volumes. Had Jefferson still been alive in 1851, he may have regretted that decision—thanks to a faulty chimney flue, the Library of Congress burned again, destroying tens of thousands of books, including two-thirds of the Jefferson collection. Many of the lost Jefferson volumes were replaced by other parts of the Library’s collection and generous donations, but none of them have the cachet of being hand selected by Thomas Jefferson himself.

15. Nearly the Entire Written Record of Maya History

In the mid-1500s, Spanish priest Diego de Landa deemed Maya statues, books and, papers “superstition and lies of the devil,” and proceeded to almost single-handedly destroy 5000 religious images and over two dozen works in just one town. The decimation wrought by De Landa and other Europeans was so complete that only four original pieces, the Maya Codices, are known to exist today, along with some poorly preserved fragments that are generally unreadable. Maya scholars compare the act to the burning of the Library of Alexandria—we still don’t know what knowledge was lost.

16. Buddhas of Bamiyan

For 1500 years, a set of colossal, hand-carved Buddhas stood sentry over the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan. Records show that the 175 and 120 feet tall Buddhas were covered in plaster and gems in their earlier years, but by the time the Taliban got to them in 2001, they were simply incredible works of sandstone sculpture—but that didn’t stop the Taliban from destroying the priceless works. Despite pleas from art historians around the world, the Taliban demolished the ancient Buddhas over the course of 25 days, forcing prisoners to place explosives in holes drilled into each statue. Although there have been talks of rebuilding the Buddhas, either from scratch or using the pieces that were later salvaged, nothing has come to fruition yet—and no replacement can come close to the cultural and historical value of the ancient originals.