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Lost Treasures of the 20th Century

by Mike Rothschild

May 26, 2015

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Donate Today we’re going to put on our best pith helmet, grab a metal detector and go in search of great lost treasures of the recent past. Contrary to urban legend, not all hidden stacks of cash and gold are 17th century buried pirate chests or great old Viking hordes found in the peat bogs of England. There are countless cases of stolen cash, plundered war loot, lost heists and treasures that have simply disappeared " and they’re all in the recent past.

Please note that many of these are legendary and probably don’t exist. Some others are lost for a good reason " they’re in incredibly inhospitable environments, and searching for them has claimed lives in a few cases. So please don’t go looking for them.

We’ll start with some lost treasures that were plundered during World War II.

Yamashita’s gold " One of the most persistent rumors surrounding the Pacific War is that Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita hid a massive gold horde in a giant underground complex of caves and tunnels on a remote island in the Philippines. How massive is Yamashita’s horde supposed to be? Some rumors place its combined size at 170,000 tons and a value of over $100 TRILLION. This number is preposterous, however, as it’s more gold than has ever been mined in history, and the very existence of the actual treasure is disputed. Since none of the people associated with its capture are still alive, we’ll probably never know for sure where it is, how much there is, or if it’s there at all. There was a highly publicized court case between a Filipino treasure hunter and deposed Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos over a large amount of gold found in the 70’s that was supposedly from the Yamashita treasure, but it's never been proven conclusively where the gold came from.

Nazi Plunder in Lake Toplitz " Retreating German troops are said to have sank a number of iron boxes containing a massive amount of plunder in Austria’s Lake Toplitz. The actual contents of the horde is unknown, but it’s thought to be made mostly of stolen gold along with some diamonds. While it’s known that the Nazis dumped fake currency into the lake (some of which has been recovered), the existence of the gold horde has never been confirmed, and is only known via hearsay and rumor. A concerted effort to locate the boxes at the bottom of the lake hasn’t been successful due to heavy currents and large logs at the lake’s bottom. So little has been found other than some experimental torpedoes, cases of fake money and a box of bottle caps with a note that reads “not this time.” Despite that, search teams continue to dredge the lake looking for the gold.

The Treasure of the Awa Maru " Flying a Red Cross flag, the Japanese transport ship Awa Maru was mistakenly sunk by an American submarine on April 1, 1945. She went down with 2,003 souls, most of whom were Asian technical experts and Allied POW’s being taken to Japan. She also is rumored to have gone down with 3 billion dollars’ worth of treasure, including 40 metric tons of gold, 12 metric tons of platinum and 150,000 carats in diamonds " not to mention the famed fossilized bones of Peking Man. Rumors about the haul started as soon as the ship was sunk, with stories of sacks of loot being loaded onto the ship from local docks. After the war, the supposed size of the haul just got bigger and bigger, and more people started looking for it. In the late 70’s, China spent millions on a huge crane to lift up the wreck, as well as tens of thousands of man hours on dives to the site. A decade later, a declassified NSA document finally cleared up the mystery " the Japanese did use Awa Maru to ship gold, but away from Japan, to Hong Kong and then on to Thailand " and it was only about one ton, not the rumored 40 tons As for the fate of Peking Man’s bones, that’s still a mystery " one that likely never will be solved.

Polish Royal Casket " The Polish Royal Casket was a large wooden memorial containing 73 precious relics of Poland’s past. Among them were dozens of gold watches, chains, rings and crosses. The casket, built in 1800, managed to survive various national uprisings and wars, but it ran out of luck in 1939. When World War II broke out, the Casket was hidden in a bricked up building near the royal palace, but its location was betrayed by an ethnic German worker, and German troops looted it. None of the relics were ever recovered, and it’s thought they were all destroyed or sold off to fund the German war effort. But with so many pieces, it’s not fanciful to stay a few might still be out there.

Amber Room " The great Amber Room was a giant hall of gold-leaf backed amber panels in the Catherine Palace of St. Petersburg, Russia. It had dazzled dignitaries and visitors for over 200 years, until German troops looted it in the siege of Leningrad. The panels were removed and shipped back to Konigsberg, in East Prussia, where the room was rebuilt and displayed in Konigsberg Castle. In the last year of the war, both the city and the Castle were heavily damaged by bombing raids and artillery fire, with the Castle itself finally being demolished in 1968 after The Soviet Union had retaken East Prussia. In all probability, the Amber Room panels were destroyed by the bombing raids, and while various rumors had them being stored in abandoned mines or shipwrecks, none bore fruit. As late as 2011, researchers thought they’d found the panels in an abandoned complex in rural Poland. But they weren’t there.

Next, we’ll move on to the profits from various heists, all of which disappeared due to police intervention, being stolen again or the fact that they never existed at all. This is a fraction of the number of lost heists out there, but these are some of the most noteworthy.

DB Cooper’s cash " On Thanksgiving Eve, 1971, a hijacker who called himself Dan Cooper jumped out of an airplane over the Pacific Northwest carrying a satchel with $200,000 cash in it. Despite dozens of searches and near misses, no evidence of either Cooper or the money was found until 1980, when a boy vacationing on the Columbia River dug up three packets of ransom cash known to have been given to the hijacker. Even then, some of the bills were missing, and they were hundreds of miles from where Cooper jumped. If Cooper survived the jump, he might have gotten away with the money, but if he died and the money was lost, it’s almost certainly disintegrated in the damp northwest climate.

The Lufthansa heist " Immortalized (though not actually shown) in the gangster classic Goodfellas, the Lufthansa Heist was the largest robbery ever committed in the United States, with Jimmy Burke and a Mafia crew making off with $6 million in cash and close to a million in jewels from Kennedy Airport. And just like in the movie, Burke (named Conway in the film, and played by Robert De Niro) began killing off everyone involved with the heist to keep from being caught " and to keep the money. Burke himself was arrested in the early 1990’s, and the other conspirators were all either killed or arrested for various other crimes. The cash is thought to have been either spent or gambled away, and the jewels were never found.

Butch Cassidy’s $20k " Legendary outlaw Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch of bank robbers are said to have buried between $20,000 and $30,000 in silver coins somewhere in Irish Canyon, in the northwestern part of Colorado in Moffat County. While Cassidy and his gang are known to have spent some time hiding out in that area in the early 1900’s, nobody has been able to find the coins, and it’s just as likely they were never buried in the first place. If they are, Irish Canyon is too remote and winding to easily find then.

Dillinger’s 200k - Only months before he was shot dead in Chicago, outlaw king John Dillinger supposedly buried a huge amount of stolen cash in Wisconsin. As the story goes, Dillinger was hiding at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Mercer, Wisconsin in early 1934 with some of his crew. The FBI found them, surrounded the Lodge and set an ambush. The first three men walking out the door (all civilians) were shot down, and Dillinger’s crew made a run for it. Dillinger supposedly ran 500 yards north and buried $200,000 in small bills inside a suitcase before running for his life. In reality, Dillinger’s biographers shrug off such stories as legends or hoaxes, and any buried cash either would have disintegrated or be security notes from banks that are long gone.

Lost Fabrege Eggs - When the Russian Romanov family was violently ousted from power by the Bolsheviks in 1917, their vast wealth was confiscated, including the famous jewel-encrusted, golden Faberge eggs made to commemorate various holidays and special occasions in Russian history. Although all 52 eggs were meant to be taken to the Kremlin and melted down to fund the Revolution, 8 went missing during their transport. One was found in 2014 and put on display, but the other seven have never turned up. They were most likely stolen at the time, and either made their way to the west or were destroyed for their gold and jewels.

The Irish Crown Jewels " Stolen in 1907 from Dublin Castle, the Irish Crown Jewels were a jewel-encrusted star and badge worn by the Sovereign and Grand Master of the Order of St. Patrick. They were valued at about 30,000 pounds, and were taken from a safe along with five jeweled collars worth about a thousand pounds. Though the Dublin police looked for them, and the Irish press published pictures of the jewels twice a week for years, they were never found. Various stories have them being sold off to fund orgies at the Castle, smuggled to the US by the IRA and sold to help fund Irish Home Rule or that they taken and secretly returned to embarrass the current government.

The 21st century has brought a new haul of lost treasures, including massive bank heists, gold thefts and quite possibly the biggest bank robbery in history. We'll get to these in a future post.

by Mike Rothschild

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