History's most intriguing lost items
July 17, 2013 7:40 PM   Subscribe

What are history's most intriguing lost items, including film footage, photographs, books, or inventions?

This is something that sets my imagination ablaze, and I'm wondering what the most interesting items lost to history are, or what would be the most illuminating if they were found. Some examples of what would fit my criteria:

- The "Babushka Lady"'s photos of the JFK assassination
- The briefcase of Beatles original recordings belonging to Mal Evans
- The Magnificent Ambersons original footage
- Hemingway's lost suitcase of his original manuscripts

What I'm looking for are examples of things known to have existed, not speculative items. This means that Tesla's death ray is off the list. I'm particularly interested in real-world footage, the only example being of the death of the Grizzly Man - but that wouldn't be particularly enlightening if found, so not as interesting to me.

I'd also love stories about things thought lost forever but later found, like the missing footage from Metropolis.
posted by gregoryg to Society & Culture (52 answers total) 75 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'd have the missing minutes of the Nixon tapes on my list.
posted by 4ster at 7:47 PM on July 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Lord Byron wrote prose memoirs that his publisher John Murray found to be so shocking and scandalous, that Murray ripped them apart page by page and burned them in a fireplace. Neither Murray nor Byron's literary executor Thomas Moore ever divulged what was so shocking in the memoirs. According to this page, a portrait of Byron hangs over the fireplace where the memoirs were burned.
posted by Unified Theory at 7:50 PM on July 17, 2013 [6 favorites]

Walter Benjamin supposedly had a briefcase with him when he was trying to leave France. He carried it through the mountains but after his suicide it was never found. And no one knows what was in it ...
posted by bwonder2 at 7:52 PM on July 17, 2013 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: (Oh, just thought of one that really gets to the heart of what I'm thinking: the Roman flexible glass. Also religious texts like missing Gnostic texts would qualify.)
posted by gregoryg at 7:53 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Aristotle on comedy!
posted by skbw at 7:54 PM on July 17, 2013 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Footage of Vaslav Nijinsky dancing (see here for why there's none, but also see this short clip of him dancing).
posted by OrangeDisk at 7:55 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Dr Who episodes
Several other tv shows/episodes.

The Amber Room

Damascus steel

The entire library of Alexandria

Some lost Shakespeare.
posted by Jacen at 7:55 PM on July 17, 2013

Best answer: Wikipedia has lists of lost works, lost artwork, lost films, lost TV, and lost treasure.
posted by Paragon at 7:56 PM on July 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: The uncut version of the film "Greed" is considered the "Holy Grail" of film archivists.

Personally, I grieve much more for the Marx Brothers' lost silent film Humor Risk.

Gilbert and Sullivan's first collaborative opera, Thespis, was never commercially published and the music is now mostly lost. The lyrics survive, as well as two or three musical numbers.

I love this question, and it will be driving me crazy for the next few days.
posted by Melismata at 8:23 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

The two rembrandts (i think they were rembrandts) stolen from the isabella stewart gardner museum.
posted by Jewel98 at 8:25 PM on July 17, 2013

Best answer: For a good "lost and then found" story, check out the story of William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation, the most complete contemporary account of the Pilgrims in Plymouth. It was lost for more than 100 years, then found.
posted by Melismata at 8:28 PM on July 17, 2013

Best answer: The formula for Greek Fire.
posted by murphy slaw at 8:29 PM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Jane Austen's letters, destroyed by her sister Cassandra.
posted by PussKillian at 8:48 PM on July 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

Lost works of art
The original opening of Sunset Blvd.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:27 PM on July 17, 2013

Best answer: The Chronicles of the Kings of Israel and Judah are mentioned repeatedly in the biblical books of Kings but are no longer extant.
posted by chrchr at 9:30 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Lost works are covered pretty well so far, but I can contribute a couple long-lost-but-found works:

The book The Swerve: How The World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt is about a long-lost Roman text that was discovered by a 15th-century book hunter.

Bit of a no-brainer here, but the Dead Sea Scrolls were a huge archive of biblical texts (all O.T., and don't let anyone tell you otherwise) collected the so-called Qumran Sect (discovered in a cave near what is now Qumran, (West Bank) Israel). The DSS include what are basically early drafts of the OT books that give a fascinating look at the evolution of the text of the bible.

Currently touring the USA (I hope to see some next week!) are the Hitchcock Nine, which are 9 silent films directed by the Master of Suspense that were restored by the British Film Institute. A 10th, The Mountain Eagle, was lost.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:31 PM on July 17, 2013

Best answer: Countless classic documents were lost forever when the Library of Alexandria burned.

Just to give one example: there are 116 lost plays of Sophocles. (Only 7 of 123 survive.) Surely the Library of Alexandria had some of them, and may have had them all.

We can never know what we missed when the Conquistadores burned every Mayan codex they could find. Only four survive, and a couple of those are incomplete.

If I had a time machine, those would be destinations #1 and #2.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:35 PM on July 17, 2013 [10 favorites]

Best answer: One more found work from the Blue today, a librarian discovered a 300 Year Old cookbook.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:36 PM on July 17, 2013

The Voynich manuscript wins my vote for the weirdest historical mystery. There's evidence that it is missing some of its pages. Whether these would explain things, or only add to the weirdness, it would be amazing if they were found.

posted by Tsuga at 9:44 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The marriage license between Queen Victoria & John Brown, supposedly burned in the fireplace by Queen Elizabeth II's mother.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:46 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

(all O.T., and don't let anyone tell you otherwise)

That's not true! There's no N.T. material. I think that's what you mean. There's a large number of extra-canonical Jewish texts, including the Book of Enoch in Aramaic.

There's a catalog of the scrolls on Wikipedia. Many of these are lost and found texts.
posted by chrchr at 9:55 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One of my favorite films, The Passion of Joan of Arc, was lost and then discovered.
posted by jsturgill at 10:00 PM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The papers of Sir Richard Burton and his manuscript for the Scented Garden, which were destroyed by his wife, Isabella.

For a long time, the movie The Manchurian Candidate was "lost" and it was considered to be out of release because Sinatra had blocked it after Kennedy's assassination. However, that was denied later when the film was re-released in the late '80s. I was interested in this because we saw a "bootleg" screening of it before the re-release and apparently it had been very hard to get hold of.

Currently the film version of Porgy and Bess is in a similar lost limbo. There are bootleg copies out there, but outside of a showing in 2007, it's never really seen.
posted by emcat8 at 12:01 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Those movies aren't 'lost', they're just not available for screening. There are many, many properly 'lost' movies, though. Not only are they not currently in release-- there are no extant copies.
posted by empath at 12:48 AM on July 18, 2013

Best answer:
THE HISTORY OF THE YORUBAS From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the British Protectorate

by The REV. SAMUEL JOHNSON, Pastor of Oyo

The original manuscript was lost, and the version now in print was reconstructed from the authors note by his brother. Here is his editor's note:

A SINGULAR . misfortune, which happily is not of everyday
occurrence, befel the original manuscripts of this history, in
consequence of which the author never lived to see in print his
more than 20 years of labour.
The manuscripts were forwarded to a well-known English
publisher through one of the great Missionary Societies in 1899 and
— mirabile dictu — nothing more was heard of them !

The editor who was all along in collaboration with the author
had occasion to visit England in 1900, and called on the
publisher, but could get nothing more from him than that the
manuscripts had been misplaced, that they could not be found,
and that he was prepared to pay for them ! This seemed to the
editor and all his friends who heard of it so strange that one could
not help thinking that there was more in it than appeared on the
surface, especially because of other circumstances connected with
the so-called loss of the manuscripts. However, we let the subject
rest there. The author himself died in the following year (1901),
and it has now fallen to the lot of the editor to rewrite the whole
history anew, from the copious notes and rough copies left behind
by the author.
But for many years after his death, partly from discouragements
by the events, and partly from being appalled by the magnitude
of the task, the editor shrank from the undertaking, but circum-
stances now and again cropped up showing the need of the work,
and the necessity for undertaking it ; besides the almost criminal
disgrace of allowing the outcome of his brother's many years of
labour to be altogether lost. No one, who has never made the
attempt, can have the faintest idea of the great difficulties that
attend the efforts to elicit facts and accuracy of statements from
an illiterate people : they are bewildering with repetitions, prolix
in matters irrelevant, while facts germane to the subject in hand
are more often than not passed over : they have to be drawn out
by degrees patiently, and the chaff has to be constantly sifted from
the wheat. In no sphere of labour is patience and perseverance
more required than in this. It shows strongly the magnitude of
the labours of the original author, labours undertaken along with
the unremitting performance of his substantive duties.
When all this had to be done with the daily exactions of a busy
profession, and other demands on his time, friends will judge the
editor leniently for having taken such a long time to repair the loss
sustained many years ago. Some chapters had to be rewritten,
some curtailed, others amplified, and new ones added where
But this history has a history of its own, for apart from the
mishap that befel the original manuscripts as above detailed, its
vicissitudes were not yet over. When at last the task of re-writing
it was completed, jt was forwarded to England by the " Appam,"
which left Lagos on the 2nd of January, 19 16. The Appam was
at first supposed to be lost, but was afterwards found in America,
having been captured by the raider Moewe. Nothing was heard
of the manuscripts again for nearly two years, when they were at
last delivered to the printers ! By that time, paper haci become
so dear in England that it was deemed advisable to wait till after
the War before printing. The manuscripts were next sent back by
request to the editor, wl^o in order to obviate a future loss, under-
took to have it typewritten, but in the meantime even j;ypewriting
paper became difficult to obtain. All these drawbacks were success-
fully overcome in the end, as well as the difficulties in passing the
work through the press.
He now lets the book go forth to the public, in the hope that it
will fulfil the earnest desire of the original author.

and here is a bit of the original preface:
What led to this production was not a burning desire of the author
to appear in print — as all who are well acquainted with him will
readily admit — but a purely patriotic motive, that the history of
our fatherland might not be lost in oblivion, especially as our old
sires are fast dying out.

Educated natives of Yoruba are well acquainted with the
history of England and with that of Rome and Greece, but of the
history of their own country they know nothing whatever ! This
reproach it is one of the author's objects to remove.

Whilst the author cotild claim to be a pioneer in an untrodden
field, he can by no means pretend to have exhausted the subject ;
but he hopes by this to stimulate among his more favoured brethren
the spirit of patriotism and enquiry into the histories of the less
known parts of the country. It may be that oral records are
preserved in them which are handed down from father to son,
as in the case of the better known Royal bards in the Metropolis,
such records though imperfect should surely not be under-rated.

posted by glasseyes at 3:26 AM on July 18, 2013

Best answer: Records of the Cheng Ho expeditions.

And in the future: Much of our modern ephemera such as personal correspondence, due to changing data formats (growing less important) and now multivalent communications across different technologies and social media.
posted by dhartung at 3:47 AM on July 18, 2013

Best answer: What the initiates experienced during The Eleusinian Mysteries is basically completely unknown.
posted by empath at 3:59 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Day the Clown Cried only Jerry Lewis knows where this film is hidden; and don't ask him about it.
posted by otto42 at 4:10 AM on July 18, 2013

Best answer: Paleontologists throughout the world ache to recover the lost bones of Peking Man. Two crates of skulls were to be sent to the U.S. for safekeeping from the Chinese site where they were unearthed, but which was threatened by war with Japan. They never arrived. Theories abound. Treasure hunters and swindlers have all gotten into the act, but the data that modern analysis could gather from these bones eludes us still. Here is a Times article
posted by wjm at 4:12 AM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: A fire at the US Patent Office in 1836 destroyed the government's copies of patents issued between the founding of the office in July 1790 and the time of the fire. "There are estimated to be 9,957, of which only 2,845 have been restored," according to the linked article.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:38 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The 1890 U.S. Census records were almost all destroyed by a fire.
posted by jgirl at 4:41 AM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

The copy of the book involved in this man's extremely mysterious death.
posted by lemerle at 4:52 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I like the story of the lost puck from the Blackhawks Stanley Cup win
posted by chrispy108 at 5:41 AM on July 18, 2013

Best answer: Prince's "Wally" - his 'most personal/ confessional song' --- erased? lost? unreleased?

Questlove On Prince's Unreleased Confessional Song
PrinceVault: Wally
posted by mrmarley at 5:45 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Mentioned briefly up-thread, but here's more on the lost episodes of Doctor Who. A bunch of other BBC shows were lost in the same manner.
posted by jbickers at 6:03 AM on July 18, 2013

Best answer: Out of the Flames is a book about a book called De Chrisitianismi Restituto which was thought lost for centuries--its author was burned at the stake with what was thought to be the last copy. It's primarily a religious text but contains the earliest accurate European description of the circulatory system.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:05 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Harry Bennett, Henry Ford's right-hand man/hired goon, burned all his company records upon his firing by Henry II. I'm sure a lot of tales of shady business were lost in that fire.
posted by Turkey Glue at 6:42 AM on July 18, 2013

Best answer: The original "video" tapes of Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon. Not actually video in the sense that we know it. The stuff we have been watching for the past umpteen years is a kinescope taken from a TV set.
posted by Gungho at 7:53 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh, how I wish we could see the rest of Capa's D-Day pictures!

On D-Day, Robert Capa took photos during the beach assault. The tech who developed the film rushed the job, and 100 of the 108 (or 106?) images were spoiled.

The remaining images are still so powerful and moving that they are referred to in one article (which includes his editor's account of the loss, new to me), as The Magnificent Eleven.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:55 AM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's always Fermat's Last Theorem. We have a proof, but it is almost certainly not what Fermat had come up with.
posted by ckape at 10:43 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Recently added an entry for Edward Hopper's Corn Belt City to the Wikipedia 'Lost Artworks' page mentioned upthread. Dunno if it qualifies as 'histories most intriguing' but I'd sure like to see it in color.
posted by Rash at 12:06 PM on July 18, 2013

Best answer: Wikipedia's List of Missing Treasures includes the missing Imperial Regalia of Japan, parts of which are thought to have been lost on a ship that was sunk sailing away from Japan during World War II, to keep them safe. Oops.

EDIT: Oh. Not World War II. A sea battle in 1185. Sorry.
posted by SlyBevel at 4:34 PM on July 18, 2013

Best answer: Silphium was a medicinal plant of economic and cultural importance in classical antiquity, but no one knows what plant it was, whether it is extinct, or what medicinal properties precisely it may have had.
posted by dendrochronologizer at 9:16 PM on July 18, 2013

Best answer: Speaking of plants -- Soma.
posted by empath at 10:46 PM on July 18, 2013

Heh, can't believe we got this far without this- but the obvious candidates are the Arc, the Grail, the woodsmans heart, and whatever else Indiana Jones hunted for. Atlantis too!

The Easter Island http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rongorongo script

Linear A

Looted and otherwise missing/destroyed/stolen artworks from.... pretty much every war in history, but especially WW2.

A ton of species that went extinct
posted by Jacen at 6:19 AM on July 19, 2013

George W. Bush's DD214.
posted by Repack Rider at 8:14 PM on July 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Archimedes Palimpsest.

In 1229, Byzantine scribes wrote a prayer book. It was common practice to re-use old parchment books, scrape off the old writing and write over it.

In this case, the book the scribes chose "contained at least seven treatises by Archimedes. These treatises are The Equilibrium of Planes, Spiral Lines, The Measurement of the Circle, Sphere and Cylinder, On Floating Bodies, The Method of Mechanical Theorems, and the Stomachion. Of these treatises, the last three are of the greatest significance to our understanding of Archimedes. While the other treatises had survived through other manuscripts, there is no other surviving copy of On Floating Bodies in Greek – the language in which Archimedes wrote, and there is no version in any language of The Method of Mechanical Theorems and of the Stomachion. "

Curiously enough, this book was lost again after it was studied and photographed in the early 20th century. It re-emerged at an auction in the 1990s, unfortunately having sustained mold and physical damage in the intervening years.

It's stunning though to think that "the Archimedes Palimpsest is a unique source for the diagrams that Archimedes himself drew in the sand, in Syracuse, in the third century BC."
posted by storybored at 9:14 PM on July 22, 2013

The great bell of Dhammazedi

Cast in 1484, weighing 297 tonnes.

It was lost in 1608 but the interesting thing about bells, well, anything of this size, is that they tend to stick around, and tend to attract quite a bit of attention. So although many bells were melted down over the years by various baddies, the GBoD is still around.

Of sorts.

It was loaded onto a raft to be taken to a foundry and melted down for cannons, but the raft sank off Monkey point in Burma. The top of the bell was still visible at low tide up until 150 years ago but it's now thought to be some 7m under silt.

There's a great a heavy lift project waiting to be organised there.
posted by BadMiker at 6:06 AM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

List of destroyed libraries.
posted by mlis at 8:07 PM on August 10, 2013

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