There’s no guarantee that art will stand the test of time—even if it’s a masterpiece. Over the centuries, even paintings by greats like Leonardo da Vinci have been lost to history, their existence evidenced only by references to them in written records. The Museum of Lost Art explores some of the priceless art that has disappeared since ancient times. “Many of humanity’s greatest artworks have been lost to theft, vandalism, iconoclasm, misfortune, and willful or inadvertent destruction,” author Noah Charney, an art historian who specializes in art crime, writes. “Our understanding of art is skewed, inevitably, towards works that can be seen, that have outlived the numberless dangers that can befall a work of art that is often as brittle as a piece of paper.”
Below are just a few examples of art that has been lost, and some that has been found again.
1. Ancient Roman Frescos
The loss of art can dramatically affect how scholars view history. Many ancient Roman wall paintings were destroyed by natural disasters like the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, and thanks to this lack of evidence, many 19th century historians believed ancient Rome to be a monochrome place, full of white marble. Once the cities that Vesuvius buried in ash were finally uncovered again in the 18th and 19th centuries, revealing colorful murals and frescos like the ones on the walls of the grand Villa Poppea, historians began to understand how colorful Roman cities really were.
2. Gianlorenzo Bernini’s Portrait Bust of King Charles I
In 1654, a gunpowder magazine stored in a former convent exploded in the Dutch town of Delft, destroying much of the town and killing 100 people. One of those people was Carel Fabritius, a painter who was Rembrandt’s star pupil. The fire destroyed almost all of his paintings. Egbert Lievensz van der Poel later painted the event, titling it Explosion of the Powder Magazine at Delft, 1654.
Fire has been a devastating force in art history. In 1734, a fire in the Alcázar, Seville’s royal palace, destroyed 500 pieces of art, including several early Diego Velázquez paintings as well as works by Leonardo, Anthony van Dyck, El Greco, and Raphael, among many others. In 1698, a fire at Whitehall in London destroyed artwork like Michelangelo’s 15th century Sleeping Eros and Gianlorenzo Bernini’s 17th century Portrait Bust of King Charles I. And that isn’t even counting art destroyed in the course of war, like the 154 works that burned when the Gemäldegalerie museum was hit during the firebombing of Dresden in 1945.
3. Colossus of Rhodes Statue
This engraving shows the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, in what was likely its original location near the entrance to the Mandraki harbor on the Greek island of Rhodes. The massive bronze statue by Chares of Lindos was completed in 280 BCE. Depicting the god Helios, it was around a third of the height of the Statue of Liberty and stood atop a 49-foot-high marble plinth. Just 54 years after it was erected, the Colossus was destroyed in an earthquake that caused it to break apart at the knees and crash backward. While the broken statue lay where it had fallen for centuries, becoming a tourist destination in its own right, the bronze was melted down by an invading army in 653 CE, leaving us with only drawings of what it might have looked like, including the one above.
4. Rogier van der Weyden’s Justice Cycle
In some instances, the lost paintings created by master artists hundreds of years ago may have been even more famous during their time than the works that survived. “It is easy to forget that works we associate with great artists were not necessarily their greatest, most influential creations; often they are just the ones that happen to have survived, winning the historical roll of the dice,” Charney writes.
Such is the case with Rogier van der Weyden, one of the most influential painters in 15th century Flanders. His most famous paintings, four large works on the theme of justice, were lost to a massive 17th century fire that destroyed much of Brussels during the Nine Years’ War. The only record we have left of the paintings is from written descriptions from those who came to visit the works, and a tapestry the artist made a decade after the original works is the closest visual evidence we have of what they looked like. “Rogier is now best known for his Deposition, but during his lifetime, his Justice Cycle was his monument,” Charney writes. “One wonders what different, maybe greater, influence the Justice Cycle might have had, had fortune allowed it to act as a point of pilgrimage for artists for centuries more.”
5. The Amber Room
A huge amount of art disappears during wartime, whether because of looting or because the works become collateral damage in conflict. Russia’s Amber Room was subject to both. In the 18th century, Empress Elizabeth of Russia installed numerous wall panels made from thinly sliced amber veneer, a gift from the king of Prussia to the Russian tsar 27 years earlier, in a room in her winter palace. Over the years, she and her descendants expanded and redecorated the bejeweled room, ultimately installing 13,000 pounds of amber on the walls. It became known as the Eighth Wonder of the World. But it wouldn’t survive the 20th century.
In the modern era, the delicate panels did not fare well, since central heating made them incredibly brittle. But World War II spelled doom—despite efforts to hide the room from invading forces, the Nazis packed the panels into 27 crates and shipped them to Prussia in 1941, putting them on partial display at Königsberg Castle. Unfortunately, the castle was ruined by a combination of Allied bombs in 1944 and the three-month siege by the Red Army in 1945. While it’s possible that some parts of the room might have survived, only two objects have turned up in the last half century—a chest and a marble mosaic, both rediscovered in the late ’90s.
The Amber Room wasn't the only major work of art to fall victim to the Third Reich. The Nazis stole hundreds of thousands of paintings from Jewish art dealers and collectors during World War II, a large number of which were never returned to their rightful owners. As of 2009, an estimated 100,000 of the 650,000 stolen works had not yet been given back to their original owners or their descendants, despite laws like the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016 that aim to facilitate the return of Nazi-looted art. In some cases, these descendants have had to sue museums in order to get their art back.
Even now, conflict provides easy cover for would-be art thieves. Between 2003 and 2005, at the outset of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, around a half million antiquities were stolen from Iraqi museums and archaeological sites. Unfortunately, art is inextricably linked to conflict.
6. Apoxyomentos Statue
While many artworks have been lost to disasters, shipwrecks have actually saved some ancient art from destruction. In the ancient world, metal art was often melted down and recycled for other projects, like making cannonballs. Statues like this Apoxyomenos were saved from this fate by virtue of being underwater for centuries. The Croation statue, made in the first or second century CE, was discovered in 1996, well-preserved at the bottom of the northern Adriatic Sea.
7. Picasso Paintings Made for Le Mystere Picasso
Sometimes, artwork is destroyed by the artist themselves. Pablo Picasso made several works on camera during the filming of Le Mystère Picasso, but as part of the movie, those paintings were later destroyed. The whole point was that they would only be viewed through the lens of the film.
Other artists throughout history have destroyed their own work because they were dissatisfied with how it turned out. Michelangelo ordered most of his drawings burned, not wanting to share the notes he used to make his sculptures and paintings, and as a result, only a fraction survive. More modern artists have burned their work, too: An unhappy Claude Monet destroyed 15 canvases before a 1908 exhibition in Paris, and Gerhard Richter once cut up and burned 60 of his earliest paintings, keeping only photographs of them.
“Sometimes,” Richter said in 2012, “when I see one of the photos, I think to myself: That’s too bad; you could have let this one or that one survive.”
A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2022.