We describe the synthesis and characterization of high-performance, superparamagnetic, iron oxide nanoparticle-based, heavy metal sorbents, which demonstrate excellent affinity for the separation of heavy metals in contaminated water systems (i.e., spiked Columbia River water). The magnetic nanoparticle sorbents were prepared from an easy-to-synthesize iron oxide precursor, followed by a simple, one-step ligand exchange reaction to introduce an affinity ligand to the nanoparticle surface that is specific to a heavy metal or class of heavy metal contaminants. The engineered magnetic nanoparticle sorbents have inherently high active surface areas, allowing for increased binding capacities. To demonstrate the performance of the nanoparticle sorbents, river water was spiked with specific metals and exposed to low concentrations of the functionalized nanoparticles. In almost all cases, the nanoparticles were found to be superior to commercially available sorbent materials as well as the unfunctionalized iron oxide nanoparticles.