• Investigators work to hunt down the hundreds of thousands of objects and pieces of artwork stolen by the Nazis at the end of World War II. (SBS On Demand)Source: SBS On Demand
It wasn't just the biggest conflict the world has ever seen. For some, sadly, it was a business opportunity. Fabulous treasures that fell to the deft fingers of profiteers remain off the radar today. Here are some of the most famous.
By
Travis Johnson

3 May 2019 - 5:02 PM  UPDATED 3 May 2019 - 4:26 PM

Yes, it’s not exactly honourable, but looting is a venerable military tradition. Victorious armies have pretty much always taken the opportunity to relieve their vanquished foes of as many of their fineries as they could cart home. For one thing, it supplemented what have historically always been low rates of pay for the average fighting man. For another, it’s the reason Britain is packed to the gills with museums and galleries – all those marble columns, mummies, and artifacts were not necessarily donated freely.

It only stands to reason that the biggest conflict in human history led to peak levels of looting and, as documentary series Hunting Nazi Treasure demonstrates in fascinating detail, many of the great artworks and fabulous hoards that surreptitiously disappeared during Hitler’s rampage across the globe remain missing, presumed sold. Here, then, are some of the most intriguing lost treasures of World War II. 

Yamashita’s Gold

This is an interesting one, in that it may not exist, but rumours have circled for years that Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita and Crown Prince Yasuhito Chichibu were instrumental in organising the wide-scale, officially-sanctioned looting of South East Asia under the aegis of an outfit called Kin no yuri ("Golden Lily").

The story goes that, thanks to so many high-ranking Japanese being killed in the war or executed for war crimes shortly thereafter, that the location of the fabulous hoard that Golden Lily accumulated is now unknown. The Philippines is a location favoured by treasure hunters, and over the years countless would-be Indiana Joneses have scoured the country in hope of finding the loot.

Indeed, one guy claimed to have found it. Former soldier Rogelio Roxas not only said that he found at least part of the treasure in 1971, including a golden Buddha statue that weighed a metric ton, but that agents of Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos robbed him of it, kidnaping and torturing him in the process.

Roxas died in 1993, but arguments about the truth of his claim, including a suit against the Marcos estate filed in Hawaii, have raged ever since.

Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man

 

Renaissance master Raphael’s probable self-portrait hung happily on the wall of Poland’s Czartoryski Museum until 1939, when German troops stormed across the border and World War II officially began.

Prince Augustyn Józef Czartoryski heroically spirited away the painting and several other important artworks, but the Gestapo found his hiding place and ‘Portrait of a Young Man’ fell into the hands of none other than Hitler’s personal lawyer, Hans Frank, then Governor-General of Poland.

The painting spent some time in Hitler’s personal collection at Linz, but Frank apparently really liked it, for it was back in his possession when he was arrested by the Allies in 1945. Frank was hung for war crimes at Nuremberg in 1946, but somewhere along the way the painting disappeared, along with almost 900 other works in Frank’s collection. Author Lynn H Nicholas, whose book The Rape of Europa remains the definitive work on Nazi plunder, estimates that, if it still exists, ‘Portrait of a Young Man’ would be valued at well over US$100 million.

Rommel’s Gold

We tend to think of Erwin “The Desert Fox” Rommel as one of the “good” Nazis, because we’re dumb that way, but he was still a bloody Nazi and he did loot some $50 million in gold from the Jews of Djerba, Tunisia.

That gold apparently wound up underwater – whether by design at the hands of crack Waffen SS frogmen under orders to keep it out of Allied hands, or simply because the ship on which it was being transported was bombed into a watery grave. The general consensus is that it’s off the coast of Corsica, and naturally this sort of thing has attracted its fair share of treasure hunters.

One of them is a bit more illustrious than the usual lot, though – Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, had a crack at finding Rommel’s lost treasure, having apparently gotten wind of it during his wartime intelligence work. The legendary author fared no better than anyone else, though, and no doubt consoled himself with a few vodka martinis before making mention of it in his novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

 

The Amber Room

This one must have taken some effort. Originally made in Prussia in 1701, The Amber Room was indeed an entire room paneled with amber and gold that bounced around Europe for a bit. It was used as a gift to seal various treaties and alliances, before finding what was hoped to be a permanent home in the Catherine Palace of Tsarskoye Selo near Saint Petersburg.

Enter the Wehrmacht. Realising they had no hope of moving the room before the German army descended on the palace (the amber had become brittle with age), Russian experts simply wallpapered over it – a ruse the Germans saw through almost immediately. The Nazis removed it in 48 hours flat (chalk that up to German engineering), reassembling it in East Prussia’s Königsberg Castle.

In the closing days of the war, the castle was bombed by the RAF and shelled with artillery before being seized by the Russians in 1945. History fails to record the exact fate of the room – it’s possible the Germans managed to evacuate it, or the Russians seized it, or it was broken up and parcelled out to unknown parties. All we can say for sure is it has never been seen since, although a replica was unveiled in 2003 and, of course, every so often someone claims to have found the original.

 

Peking Man

Not an artwork alone, but a set of invaluable archaeological artifacts, “Peking Man” refers to a collection of early hominid fossil fragments found between 1923 and 1937 at Zhoukoudian, near what is now Beijing, in China. The fossils date back some 750,000 years and are some of the only examples of Homo erectus (an extinct species of early humans) ever found.

In 1941, with Beijing under Japanese occupation but open hostilities between the Allies and Japans not yet begun, the pieces were apparently loaded onto a truck by US marines, the first part of a journey that would see them safely ensconced in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Unfortunately, they never got there.

This is one of those cases where the trail just runs immediately cold – we don’t know if they were ever loaded onto a ship, but Occam’s Razor suggests their likely fate involved a great deal of seawater as the Pacific Theatre began heating up. It’s possible they were looted by individuals, but given their value is scientific rather than strictly financial or aesthetic, it’s unusual that, if stolen, they haven’t yet surfaced. China has inaugurated a committee dedicated to finding Peking Man, but so far the fate of the fossils remains a mystery.

Watch Hunting Nazi Treasure on SBS this Sunday at 5:30pm, or the full series right now at SBS On Demand.

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