You’ll need more than a map and a shovel to find these cultural gems. But trust us, it will be worth the effort.
1. The Makings of a Very Pricy Omelet
From 1885 until the Russian Revolution in 1917, Saint Petersburg’s House of Fabergé created 50 Imperial Easter Eggs as special commissions for the Tsar’s family. These baubles weren’t just encrusted with the world’s most precious stones and metals; each shell opened to reveal a “surprise”—anything from a ruby pendant to a tiny bejeweled train with working mechanics.
When Communists seized control of Russia, they didn’t have much use for these decadent symbols. In 1927, Joseph Stalin’s young regime was dangerously low on cash, so the Soviets decided to hold what amounted to an extended high-end yard sale. Foreign collectors snapped up the Fabergé offerings, and today only 10 of the 50 original eggs still reside at the Kremlin. Of the remaining 40, 32 are in museums or private collections. But eight have vanished entirely. Estimates value the missing Imperial eggs at as much as $30 million apiece! Whether they’re lost or residing in private collections, these Easter eggs are definitely worth finding.
2. Hitchcock's Missing Ending
Just a few years into his career, 24-year-old Alfred Hitchcock was already wearing a lot of hats. On 1923’s hastily produced The White Shadow, Hitchcock served as writer, set designer, assistant director, and even editor. Unfortunately, he didn’t reap much reward for all that effort. The film about twin sisters, one of whom was good while the other was—brace yourself—evil, quietly bombed at the box office. Before long, all known copies had disappeared.
That is, until 2011. In a twist straight out of one of his own films, three of the movie’s six reels turned up in New Zealand. The reels had been nestled safely in the New Zealand Film Archive’s holdings since 1989.
How did the British film stock end up on the other side of the world? Blame nitrate. In movies’ early days, reels of nitrate film circled the globe as a picture played in one country after another. Because the reels were incredibly flammable, transporting them was risky and expensive. And because New Zealand was often the end of the theatrical line, studios usually destroyed a film’s reels there rather than shipping them home.
One projectionist, Jack Murtagh, couldn’t bear to trash the art, so he built up a formidable collection of terrible films—including half of The White Shadow—in his garden shed. When he passed away, his grandson donated most of the shed’s contents to the Film Archive, where the reels sat patiently for nearly 22 years.
Surprisingly, the first half of The White Shadow held up quite well during its stay in Murtagh’s shed, but the last three reels remain lost—as do several of Hitchcock’s other early projects. Today, any one of those films would fetch millions of dollars on the market.
3. Lincoln's Speech That Wasn't Fit to Print
Contrary to what your history teacher said, Abraham Lincoln’s finest speech didn’t begin with the phrase “four score.” Instead, it was a thunderous antislavery oration delivered to the first convention of the Illinois Republican Party on May 29, 1856. Schoolchildren don’t recite these words for a simple reason: Nobody wrote them down.
It’s not clear how the text of the speech became lost, but the traditional explanation is that the speech was too powerful. Instead of transcribing Lincoln’s fiery words, entranced journalists forgot to take notes. The Chicago Democrat reported, “Abraham Lincoln for an hour and a half held the assemblage spellbound by the power of his argument, the intense irony of his invective, the brilliancy of his eloquence. I shall not mar any of its fine proportions by attempting even a synopsis of it.”
Some modern scholars have a different theory; they speculate that the speech was suppressed, not lost. Lincoln’s words may have been such an intense rebuke of slavery that their publication had the potential to shake a fragile nation. The speech’s reputation only grew as Lincoln’s national stature skyrocketed. Several “firsthand accounts” of the speech have surfaced over the years, only to be debunked, leaving historians hungrier than ever for an accurate transcript.
4. The World Loses Its Cup
Two years before soccer’s governing body, FIFA, staged the first World Cup in 1930, it commissioned a trophy to match the quadrennial tournament’s prestige: a gold-plated silver cup atop a sculpture of the Greek goddess Nike. After every tournament, the victorious nation would hold onto the fancy hardware until the next Cup. As added incentive, the first nation to win the Cup three times would become the trophy’s permanent owner.
In 1970, Brazil accomplished that feat with a Pelé-led squad. FIFA held a design contest to create a new award, while the original trophy was sent to Rio de Janeiro for a quiet retirement. The Brazilian Football Confederation kept it displayed in a special cabinet fronted with bulletproof glass. Unfortunately, the cabinet’s wooden frame was less secure. In 1983, thieves burst into the confederation’s headquarters, overpowered a guard, and pried open the display to make off with the trophy. Although four men were later convicted for the heist, the trophy was never recovered.
While Pelé has appealed for the hardware’s return, police believe it was likely melted down for its precious metals. The trophy’s true whereabouts remain unknown, but fans can still enjoy a tangible symbol of Brazil’s futebol supremacy—in 1984, Kodak’s Brazilian division presented the country with a gold replica.
5. The Classic Novel No One's Read
When the Modern Library pegged Arthur Koestler’s 1940 novel, Darkness at Noon, as the eighth-best English-language novel of the 20th century, it was a curious choice. Not because the book is bad; the incredible account of a Communist revolutionary’s fall from grace, imprisonment, and interrogation gave the West a glimpse of the paranoia and repression that infected Stalin’s regime. No, praising Darkness at Noon as an English-language novel is odd because it was written in German.
Koestler penned the work in France while living with his companion, the British sculptor Daphne Hardy. The couple sent the German manuscript to Koestler’s publisher, but held onto one copy that Hardy had translated into English. With the Nazis advancing on Paris, Koestler and Hardy fled to Bordeaux, where Hardy took the manuscript and boarded a ship home to the United Kingdom. Soon after Hardy set sail, Koestler received terrible news: Her boat had been sunk by a torpedo. Having lost both his lover and the last remaining copy of his novel, Koestler attempted suicide, but failed—and before he could try again, the bereaved novelist learned that the reports had been erroneous.
The English translation of Darkness at Noon was published to great praise in London, but in the chaos of the early days of World War II, the German manuscript disappeared, leaving scholars with no clues about the original text of one of the 20th century’s greatest novels.
6. A Prehistoric Bird Flies the Coop
(Image credit: H. Raab)
As any dinosaur-obsessed kid knows, Archaeopteryx is the link that proves that today’s birds are descendants of Jurassic dinos. But for all its fame, the Archaeopteryx is one rare creature—only 11 fossils are known to exist, and one of those is hopelessly lost.
In 1956, German quarry workers unearthed the “Maxberg specimen,” but the dino-bird sat in storage for two years as an anonymous slab of rock until quarry owner Eduard Opitsch loaned it to a geologist. Only then did paleontologists realize that the fossil was an Archaeopteryx. At the time, it was just the third known Archaeopteryx fossil, so the scientific community went nuts for it. Opitsch allowed the Maxberg Museum to display the specimen (hence the name) while he worked out a plan to sell it to the highest bidder. A German museum offered $10,000, but the notoriously cranky Opitsch balked at the idea of paying taxes on his windfall. In 1974, he simply took his Archaeopteryx and went home.
It’s unclear what exactly Opitsch did with one of the most important paleontological finds of the 20th century, but he refused to show his Archaeopteryx to anyone. According to one story, he kept the fossil under his bed. Others speculate that he buried the slab for safekeeping or secretly sold it to a collector. Whatever happened, the Archaeopteryx was nowhere to be found when Opitsch passed away in 1991. Fossil sleuths have been digging around for it ever since, but the Maxberg specimen seems to have flown away.
7. The Best Argument for Paying Ransoms
The Bishop of Ghent probably wished he’d stayed in bed on the morning of April 11, 1934. The Belgian clergyman awoke to learn that a burglar had broken into St. Bavo’s Cathedral and pilfered a section of “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” a 15th-century altarpiece and national treasure painted by Flemish masters Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Because swiping the entire artwork would have been cumbersome—it measures 11.5 by 14.5 feet—the thief instead boosted two of the 20 panels, including “The Just Judges,” the bottom left section.
Shortly after the theft, ransom notes appeared demanding 1 million Belgian francs for the work’s return. The bishop agreed. He put down a 25,000-franc installment on the ransom, but he couldn’t get the full million. Instead, the police pressed the bishop to play hardball by offering another 225,000 francs and not a centime more.
The thief was not impressed, writing, “[W]e keep thinking that what we ask is not excessive or impossible to realize.” After the church rebuffed an offer to hand over the ransom on a payment plan, the thief dropped the correspondence and kept his prize.
Authorities believe the frustrated burglar was a stockbroker, amateur artist, and crime-novel buff named Arsène Goedertier. Just a few months after the theft, Goedertier allegedly made a deathbed confession. But he died before he could reveal the piece’s whereabouts. If Goedertier actually squirreled the panels away, he did a terrific job of hiding them. Although “The Just Judges” was replaced with a copy, the work’s fate remains one of the art world’s most elusive mysteries.
8. Wheeeeeere’s Johnny?
Host Johnny Carson’s three-decade stint at The Tonight Show is the stuff of late-night legend, but physical evidence of Carson’s first decade behind the desk is surprisingly scarce.
In the 1960s, archiving was not a priority; NBC would air an episode of The Tonight Show and then promptly erase the tape. While it sounds unthinkable now, it was standard business practice at the time. Though the show was making NBC millions, tapes cost $300 apiece (nearly $2,000 in today’s money). Because each one could be erased and reused up to 50 times, watershed moments such as Carson’s debut show—when he was introduced by Groucho Marx—are lost forever. The network did save a few tapes for reruns, but more than 90 percent of Carson’s jokes aired just once.
There is some hope for Carson fanatics, though. Other lost recordings from the same era have turned up in recent years. In 2011, a tape of the 1967 broadcast of Super Bowl I (the holy grail of missing sports footage) was discovered in a Pennsylvania attic, so we may still get a chance to hear a young Ed McMahon bellow, “Heeeeeere’s Johnny!”
9. The Found Object That Got Lost
French artist Marcel Duchamp shocked the world in 1917 when he unveiled a run-of-the-mill urinal as the sculpture “Fountain.” Eager to make the point that ordinary found objects could be art, he submitted the piece to an avant-garde Society of Independent Artists exhibit that promised to show the work of any artist who forked over a $6 fee. Duchamp signed the work “R. Mutt,” presumably so his fame from paintings such as “Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)” wouldn’t affect the piece’s reception. Still, he hoped his readymade idea would get a big showcase.
Unfortunately for Duchamp, not even his artist pals got the joke. The show’s board of directors dismissed the piece as vulgar, while a magazine essay decried it as “plagiarism, a plain piece of plumbing.” Forgetting its promise to exhibit any submitted work, the show refused to display “Fountain,” forcing Duchamp to convince journalists to write essays about the work to spread his message. Famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz snapped a picture of the piece, but the original disappeared shortly thereafter. Someone probably made the assumption that the stray urinal was trash and tossed it.
Years later, Duchamp began overseeing a painstaking re-creation of “Fountain” for collectors and museums. Today, more than a dozen of his meticulous replicas—absolutely identical to his original found object—exist and are priced at as much as $2.5 million when they hit the market. But Duchamp’s original is lost to the ages.
10. Russia and Prussia Get a Room
This picture is of the reconstruction.
What do you give the tsar who has everything? In 1716, Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm I needed to give Russia’s Peter the Great a gift magnificent enough to solidify the countries’ alliance against Sweden. Friedrich Wilhelm’s present swung for the diplomatic fences: a room with walls made from six tons of amber backed with gold leaf. At 180 square feet, the Amber Room lived up to its nickname, “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” Needless to say, the gift went over swimmingly. The room was installed in a palace near Saint Petersburg, where it instantly became one of Russia’s greatest treasures.
When the Nazis embarked on a massive art-looting binge more than two centuries later, the Amber Room posed a bit of problem. Unlike a canvas or a sculpture, there was no sneaky way to stash a very large, very famous room. Amber’s fragility made moving the entire chamber a dicey proposition, so the room’s caretakers attempted to hide its opulence behind a layer of wallpaper.
Given the room’s fame, this bluff didn’t stand a chance. Nazi soldiers located the Amber Room in October 1941 and shipped its panels to a castle in Königsberg, Germany. The reconstructed room was briefly on display in Königsberg before it was crated up as the war drew to a close. And nobody has seen it since!
Many scholars think the room was destroyed when Königsberg weathered heavy Allied bombings in 1944 or during the city’s surrender the following year. Others speculate that the Nazis tried to sneak the treasure out of the city on a boat that sank or buried it in a shallow lagoon off of the Baltic Sea. Art historians estimate the Amber Room would be worth as much as $250 million today, but nearly seven decades of treasure hunts haven’t turned up anything aside from a pair of small pieces. Still, if you’re itching to see what the room looked like, there’s a way. In 1979, Soviet craftsmen began using photographs to reconstruct the Amber Room in its pre-looting home; the project was completed in 2003, just in time for Saint Petersburg’s 300th birthday.
The above article by Ethan Trex is reprinted with permission from the May-June 2012 issue of mental_floss magazine.