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James VI and I wearing the Three Brothers on his hat

History's most incredible lost treasures that may never be found

Image: James VI and I wearing the Three Brothers on his hat | Public Domain

The most breathtakingly opulent room in human history. The largest bell ever crafted. The jewel that was owned by the wealthiest man to ever walk the Earth. These are the treasures that astounded all who laid eyes on them – before being lost forever.

The Great Bell of Dhammazedi

Ruling in the late 15th century, King Dhammazedi of the Hanthawaddy Kingdom is still renowned as one of the greatest and wisest monarchs to hold sway in Burma. Yet the element of his reign that today generates the most discussion and fascination is, it seems, hopelessly lost forever.

In 1484, the king ordered the creation of the largest bell ever cast. The Great Bell of Dhammazedi was said to be over twelve metres tall, four metres wide and weighing a staggering 300 tonnes. To put that into perspective, London’s iconic Big Ben is a relative featherweight at just under fourteen tonnes.

Crafted from a mixture of metals including silver and gold, the monumental bell was, according to a visiting Venetian merchant, engraved ‘from the top to the bottom’ with cryptic letters which ‘no nation’ could understand. It’s likely we’ll never know the truth about that, because in 1608 the bell was looted by Portuguese adventurer and warlord Filipe de Brito e Nicote.

In what must have been a Herculean endeavour, he and his men removed the bell from the Golden Pagoda of Dagon (contemporary Yangon), rolled it down a hill, and used elephants to drag it to a raft on Myanmar’s river. De Brito had the audacious idea of sailing it away to melt down and make it into cannons. But, rather unsurprisingly given the sheer weight of the thing, his raft broke apart, sending the bell down into the watery depths.

Many intrepid divers have tried to locate the bell in modern times, but even with sophisticated underwater equipment, it has yet to be retrieved from its centuries-old resting place.

The Amber Room

Conceived in the early 18th century, the Amber Room was exactly that: a room lined with opulent panels of fossilised tree resin. The addition of gold, precious stones and shimmering mirrors gave visitors the impression of stepping inside some vast, magical jewel box.

Designed by renowned Baroque sculptor Andreas Schlüter for Frederick I of Prussia, the original Amber Room was installed at the Berlin Palace before it was gifted to Russia’s Peter the Great in 1716. It was duly dismantled and sent to Russia, where it was eventually re-assembled – and made even larger and more lavish – in the Catherine Palace, close to St Petersburg.

Containing six tonnes of amber and thought to be worth up to £240 million in today’s money, the Amber Room was hailed as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’. But its glittering reputation proved to be its undoing.

During Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, German troops looted countless Russian treasures, and the Amber Room was considered a major prize. Once again, the lavish dwelling was dismantled, this time in an act of brazen theft. The panels were packed into crates and dispatched to Königsberg Castle in Germany, and they’ve never been seen since.

So, what actually happened to the Amber Room? The most prominent theory is that the crates were either destroyed when the castle was fire-bombed by Allied planes in 1944, or when the Soviet army attacked Königsberg in 1945. Others believe the crates had been whisked away before the city fell to locations that will never be known.

The fate of the Amber Room has been investigated by the KGB, the Stasi of East Germany, and countless researchers. There have also been mysterious deaths in connection to the hunt, including that of amateur historian Georg Stein. One of the most noted Amber Room hunters, Stein was found dead and disembowelled in a Bavarian forest in 1987.

The Three Brothers

You’ve probably seen the Three Brothers without even knowing it. Consisting of three red spinels (a ruby-like gemstone) clustered around a central blue diamond, it was once part of the Crown Jewels of England and made appearances in some of the most well-known portraits of iconic monarchs… before it vanished into the shadows of history.

Created by Hermann Ruissel, one of the greatest French jewellers of his day, the Three Brothers was commissioned in the late 14th century by Duke John the Fearless of Burgundy. Following John’s assassination in 1419, the Three Brothers was passed down to his son Philip the Good. He in turn passed it down to his son Charles the Bold, who carried it with him during military campaigns.

Charles was forced to leave the jewel behind after fleeing the site of a lost battle. It was taken by enemy forces and later sold to German merchant Jakob Fugger, considered to be the richest person who has ever lived with a fortune of over $400 billion in today’s money.

After decades in the Fugger family, the Three Brothers was sold to England’s boy-king Edward VI in 1551. Now part of the Crown Jewels, it featured in famous paintings of Elizabeth I and James VI and I. Yet, despite its importance to his predecessors, the hard-up Charles I attempted to sell it in the 1640s.

Around this time, the ‘treasure known to all Christendom’, owned by the great and the good of Europe, simply disappears from the historical record. It’s likely to have been sold and broken up or re-purposed, but we’ll never know for sure.