Lost and found: FIFA's masterpiece

Art theft has been a source of fascination and intrigue for generations. Over the centuries, many great treasures have been lost – and many have never been found again. And yet, as the FIFA World Football Museum opens its doors to the world, we can boast a genuinely remarkable exhibit. A treasure lost for over half a century. Part of the original World Cup trophy.

In Hollywood, art thieves are often portrayed as suave and elegant, and they invariably come with impeccable manners – none more so than Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair. But the truth is rarely so glamourous. Instead of a modern day Scarlet Pimpernel stealing for the sheer thrill of the act, think of the reality: art thieves as cultural vandals; criminal gangs depriving society of objects of beauty that can’t be replaced.

In August 2012, an article appeared on the internet, listing ten of the greatest lost treasures. These included the missing Fabergé eggs (of the 52 made for the Tsars of Russia, eight are still missing) and the magnificent Amber Room, stolen by the Nazis from St Petersburg, a mystery which continues to tantalise us with unconfirmed sightings. Number three in the list? Something made for FIFA. The Jules Rimet Cup.

For 40 years, the captain of the World Cup winners was presented with the beautiful golden statuette which stood on a base of lapis lazuli stone. It was made by French sculptor Abel Lafleur before the first tournament in 1930 and is his most famous work. Lafleur had a close relationship with Jules Rimet, who combined his role as President of FIFA with his position as President of the French FA (Fédération Française de Football). Rimet had commissioned Lafleur to make a number of medals for tournaments played in France; so he was an obvious choice for the World Cup trophy.

The famous sculpture had a turbulent life. There were rumours that the Nazis hunted for it in Rome during the War – and it was stolen before the 1966 World Cup (and then found by a dog called Pickles!). In 1970, after Brazil won the trophy for a third time, it was given to their association to keep for ever. But 13 years later, it was stolen for a second time and vanished for good. A week after its theft from the headquarters of the CBF in Rio de Janeiro, the police claimed that it had been melted down.

This may be true. But even if the trophy wasn’t melted down, it’s highly unlikely to be seen again in public. While an object like the Jules Rimet Cup is often valuable currency for the criminal underworld, the thieves themselves can never realise its true value on the open market – and that means that the trophy has probably gone for ever. That’s heartbreaking for football fans everywhere, especially in Uruguay, Italy, Germany, Brazil and England – the countries who had won this iconic trophy.

One of the stranger stories surrounding the Jules Rimet Cup emerged after the 1954 World Cup Final, in which West Germany beat Hungary 3-2. It is known that a copy of the trophy was made in the central German town of Hanau. But when the original Cup appeared at the next finals, four years later in Sweden, it looked different. Some conspiracy theorists assumed that the original had been lost, damaged, or stolen while in the possession of the West German FA, who replaced it with the Hanau copy.

But in 2013, when FIFA decided to build a museum, one of the first things to do was investigate stories like these, tales which had become part of the folklore attached to the Jules Rimet Cup. Every available photo of the trophy was hunted down and printed out – and the mystery of the Hanau trophy took centre stage. It led us to a truly remarkable discovery. The story centred on the lapis lazuli base. In 1954, West Germany’s captain Fritz Walter was the fifth captain to lift the World Cup – but when the team got home, they realised that there were only four sides to the base. As each side had a plaque with a single winner on it, there was nowhere to add West Germany’s name.

The trophy which appeared in 1958 appeared taller. But that was because the original Abel Lafleur base had been replaced with a larger one, also made of lapis lazuli but with eight sides. The name of the trophy appeared on the front, which left seven plaques on the other sides, each with space for two winners. There would have been no need to change the base again until 1994 – even if no-one won the trophy three times before then.

The question we asked ourselves was where could the original Lafleur base have gone? Was it just discarded? That seemed unlikely – but FIFA had moved offices three times in the meantime, so it wasn’t implausible that the base had simply been lost. It’s nice to think that missing treasures are discovered by swashbuckling Indiana Jones types – but the truth is usually less dramatic. Lafleur’s base was simply sitting there, unlogged and unnoticed on a shelf in the FIFA archive. It had been lost for over 60 years. But because of the replacement base of 1958, no-one even knew the original was missing!

A piece from one of the world’s ten greatest lost treasures, taking pride of place in our collection.