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Lost Treasure Hunting – Inside the World’s Largest Quests for Riches

As a young boy, I dreamed of accompanying Jim Hawkins on his quest to find the hidden treasure of Captain J. Flint of the pirate ship The Walrus. The ghosts of six murdered crewmen were said to protect padlocked chests of golden doubloons, precious gems, and jewelry buried on a remote island, the only guide to its location being a tattered old map found in the bottom of a dead man’s chest.

Stories about lost pirate booty, sunken ships filled with the gold and gems of the New World, and missing treasures of antiquity have been repeated generation after generation, mesmerizing listeners with the possibilities and perils of searching for them. Some of the tales are fiction, but others have a nucleus of truth. Whatever their source, the possibility of found treasure continues to inspire adventure-seekers to action.

Famous Fictional Treasure Hunts

Long before steel vaults and guarded treasure rooms, people sought to safeguard their valuables by hiding them in the ground in locations kept confidential via coded maps and complex ciphers. In many cases – such as imprisonment, wars, or death – those privy to the secret were unable to recover the buried assets, resulting in new tales and searches. Plundered gold and gems were lost at sea in transports sunk by pirates, privateers, or storms, plummeting to the depths and scattering across the seafloor to be covered by shifting sands.

These caches of lost valuables sparked the imaginations of storytellers and adventurers alike. Authors and movie-makers are especially adept at mining the lost treasure genre.

1. Books

  • The Gold Bug.” Edgar Allen Poe’s story was published as a three-part serial in 1843. The tale begins with the deciphering of a secret message leading to buried treasure. The story is said to have influenced Robert Louis Stevenson’s pirate story 40 years later.
  • Treasure Island.” Stevenson’s most famous tale was published in 1883 and memorialized the characters of Long John Silver, Billy Bones, and the aforementioned Jim Hawkins.
  • Spartan Gold.” The American novelist Clive Cussler has frequently employed hidden treasures and hunts in his many books, including this one, which is Goodreads’ #1 most popular treasure hunting book.
  • The Da Vinci Code.” With more than a million copies sold, Dan Brown’s book follows protagonist Robert Langston’s search for the Holy Grail. Treasure hunts involving archaic and esoteric codes are a mainstay of the author’s Robert Langston series.

2. Movies

Film studio executives also recognize the universal appeal of treasure hunts, whether as dramas or comedies.

Most Expensive Treasures Found

The attraction of hidden treasures continues today, fueled by the publicity of successful treasure discoveries. Riches have been found by accident and by dedicated, years-long searches. Finders include ordinary people and well-financed enterprises using the latest technical equipment. Some of the most recent finds of extraordinary value include:

1. Hoxne Hoard

The Roman Empire began to fall apart in the fourth and fifth centuries as Britain was under siege from invading Angles and Saxons fleeing Attila’s Hun army. Romans living in Britain frequently buried their valuables – including coins, silver kitchenware, and gold objects – expecting to recover them when the threat was over.

More than 40 such caches have been discovered, one in Hoxne Village in Suffolk, England in 1992 during a farmer’s search for a lost hammer. The collection of over 15,000 Roman coins, dozens of silver spoons, and 200 gold objects, currently kept in the British Museum, is worth 1.75 million ($2.3 million as of the writing of this piece).

2. Grouville Hoard

Englishmen Reg Mead and Richard Miles, using metal detectors, found an amazing stash of Iron Age and Roman coins in 2012 while scanning a recently plowed field in Grouville Parish on the east side of Jersey in the Channel Islands. It’s believed that the coins, dated from 60 to 50 B.C., were hidden by a Celtic tribe fleeing invading Roman armies. The find, now on display at La Hougue Bie Museum in Jersey, has an estimated value of $25 to $30 million today.

3. Saddle Ridge Hoard

This collection of almost 1,500 gold coins in eight rusty metal cans was discovered in 2013 by a middle-aged couple walking their dog on their property in the Sierra Nevada mountains. At $10 million, it’s believed to be the most valuable hidden treasure found in the United States. The identity of the persons burying the coins, which were minted between 1847 and 1894, is unknown.

4. The Lost Treasure Fleet of 1715

A convoy of 11 Spanish ships joined by a French merchantman set sail from Havana to Spain just days before the hurricane season. The late departure was an effort to escape marauding pirates and privateers anxious to steal their valuable cargoes. A storm sunk the ships, killing 1,000 sailors and scattering the valuables across miles of seafloor.  All but one of the sunken ships have been discovered and portions of their cargoes recovered. However, the ship thought to have carried the most precious load of gold, silver, emerald, diamonds, and pearls – the San Miguel – was only located in 2015, and recovery is ongoing.

5. Ship of Gold

The SS Central America, operating between Central America and the U.S. east coast, sank during a hurricane off the coast of South Carolina in 1857, sending 425 passengers and crew to a watery grave, along with an estimated 9 million tons of gold bars and coins. Commercial treasure hunter Tommy Thompson found the shipwreck in 1988, setting off a series of lawsuits over the rights its cargo; 39 different insurers have claimed ownership. The total value of the find is estimated to be more than $300 million, with significant amounts yet to be recovered.

The Economics of Treasure Hunting

Treasure hunting is, at best, a dangerous way to make a living or a competitive return on investment. The odds of deliberately finding a life-changing stash are extremely low considering the high probability that many treasures are fictitious, the difficulty of following treasure maps that are often counterfeit with vague directions, the sheer magnitude of possible burial sites, and the high costs of recovery once found.

Even the more successful hunters spend years and fortunes searching for elusive riches. The Oak Island search, described in the History Channel’s “The Curse of Oak Island,” has consumed millions of hunters’ dollars, with nothing to show for it besides some metal buttons and coins, a few links of gold chain, a small gold cross, and a garnet brooch. Nevertheless, believers continue to search for the secret hoard.

There are over 3 million shipwrecks in the oceans whose total treasures are estimated at $60 billion. Nevertheless, Carol Tedesco, a Florida shipwreck explorer, warns that treasure hunting “is a high-risk business. It is more for gambler-type temperaments than those who are hardwired for security.”

A search for lost shipwrecks can easily exceed $10 million. The difficulty of finding a wreck is akin to that of finding a contact lens on a football field in the dark. The costs of the search for the RMS Titanic, sunk in 1912 after a collision with an iceberg, are unknown since the discovery was the result of a clandestine U.S. Navy search for lost submarines. But consider that an underwater excursion to see the wreckage 12,500 feet below the sea surface today costs $60,000 per visitor.

Does the Law of Finders-Keepers Apply?

Those who find hidden treasures don’t always reap the benefits of their discoveries. Property owners may claim possession of discoveries by hunts on private lands without permission. In America, native Americans may consider certain finds, such as burial sites, to be objects of their cultural heritage, and national governments often claim a portion or all of a discovery deemed historically significant.

Suppose you find a lost treasure while legally hunting on federal lands. In a typical case, the federal government will claim half of your discovery, even though you’ll be liable for 100% of the costs to recover the riches before taking anything from the property. The finder is responsible for a variety of fees and reports, including an archaeological survey to determine whether the find is historically significant, a plan of operation that describes the equipment to be used for recovery, and a reclamation bond to ensure the site is returned to its previous state when activities are completed. Hiring an attorney to protect your claim can be costly.

The ownership of sunken treasures is especially litigious, with decisions based on international courts and maritime laws. Consider the following examples:

  • Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes. In 2007, the publicly traded, deep-sea U.S. salvage company Odyssey Marine Exploration (OMEX) found this wrecked ship sunk by the British off the coast or Portugal in 1804. The Spanish government sued for the rights of the treasure, 595,000 coins of gold and silver with an estimated value of $500 million. The U.S. 11th Court of Appeals ruled in 2012 that the find belonged to Spain.
  • Spanish Galleon San Jose. Sea Search Armada, a private salvage company in Bellevue, Washington, found this sunken Spanish treasure ship off the coast of Columbia in 1981 with a prior agreement to share any treasure 50/50 with the Columbian government. Recovery was not possible at the time due to the limited technology available. The two parties and a third litigant, the government of Spain, subsequently began litigation over the rights to the $4 billion treasure. The question of ownership remains unsettled.

In addition to being liable for the cost of recovery, you must pay income tax for any profits you eventually receive from your find. Adding insult to injury, the IRS treats the proceeds of such a discovery as ordinary income, not the lower-rate capital gain, except in unique cases. For example, say you find gold coins worth $50,000 and decide to keep them for posterity. For tax purposes, you would have an ordinary income of $50,000 on the date you take possession of the coins and a tax basis equal to that amount. If you eventually sell the coins, you will have a capital gain or loss based on the sales prices of the asset and your basis.

Famed undersea treasure hunter Mel Fisher is noted for his 16-year hunt for the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha, sunk in 1622 near the Florida Keys. Today, Fisher’s company, Mel Fisher’s Treasures, run by his son, finances hunts for treasure-laden shipwrecks with independent investors for investments ranging from $6,250 to $100,000 each. Yet the elder Fisher recognized that treasure hunting is a feast-or-famine venture more likely to end in failure than success. He once told a potential investor, “If your investment adviser tells you to invest in this, you should fire him.”

Famous Lost Treasures That Are Still Missing

While lost treasures are most likely exist only in the imagination of hunters, some hidden riches have sufficient history to confirm that they might be real. The more notable of these treasures, which remain unfound, include:

1. Oak Island Money Pit

Some have claimed that the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail were buried on Oak Island by the Knights Templars to protect them from their European persecutors. However, while the existence of a booby-trapped pit on a small island off the coast of Nova Scotia is real, there is no proof that the hole contains buried treasure of any sort, nor of the persons who might have hidden it initially in the 1700s.

Over the last two centuries, treasure hunters including a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt have explored the island with little success. Six men have lost their lives on the quest. As aforementioned, in 2014, the History Channel aired the series “The Curse of Oak Island” detailing the attempts of two brothers to recover the treasure using modern equipment. No new discoveries have been reported from their efforts.

2. Treasure of Lima

The uninhabited Cocos Island, located about 350 miles from the coast of Costa Rica, is believed to the site of a $200 million cache of gold artifacts, 200 chests of gold jewelry and coins, diamonds, and silver and gold bars. British Captain William Thompson, hired by Spain to protect the treasure during a revolt in Lima in 1820, killed the Spanish guards, hijacked the load, and supposedly buried it before being captured.

The island, now a Unesco World Heritage Site, has hosted many searchers over the past 200 years, including Roosevelt and Errol Flynn. In 2016, two park rangers patrolling a Costa Rican National Park found five wooden chests of coins, jewelry, and religious artifacts worth an estimated $200 million that are thought to be the lost treasure.

3. Nazi Gold & Art Treasures

At the end of World War II, the defeated Nazis successfully hid assets of up to $37 billion that have yet to be found. These valuables included gold, silver, and artworks stolen from Jewish victims and museums and art galleries in occupied countries. Gold and massive objects were sunk in the deep lakes of Germany and Austria, with the most valuable stockpile – gold bullion worth $5.6 billion – thought to be hidden under the waters of Austria’s Lake Toplitz.

The Reich is also suspected of hiding vast amounts of gold and art objects, such as the famed Russian Amber Room, in old mines, tunnels, and caves. The stories include a lost treasure train, complete with locomotive and freight cars, that is said to be hidden in a series of tunnels in Poland.

4. The Shipwrecked Flor de la Mar

This 400-ton Portuguese frigate smashed on a reef off the coast of Sumatra in 1511. The cargo, considered to be the most valuable yet to be recovered, was the spoils from the conquered Malaysian state of Malacca.

5. Lost Union Gold Shipment of 1863

During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln ordered the transfer of gold bullion from Wheeling, West Virginia to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. According to legend, seven soldiers under the command of a lieutenant escorted a wagon filled with hay and a hidden bottom lined with gold bars, which vanished near the town of Dents Run in Pennsylvania. The shipment is said to be worth between $27 and $55 million today.

Some claim the transfer never occurred, while others assert the gold is buried in a secret location in the forest near the town. The story gained new credence in 2018 when the FBI conducted a court-ordered excavation in the area related to an ongoing investigation. The federal agency subsequently reported that no treasure was found.

6. Lost Dutchman’s Mine

One of America’s most infamous lost treasures, some stories claim this mine was initially worked by the Peralta family of Northern Mexico in the 1840s and later abandoned due to Apache Indian attacks. Others insist the mine was initially developed by the Apaches in a site now buried under Roosevelt Lake. Two Germans, Jacob Weisner and Jacob Waltz (the “Dutchman”), supposedly relocated the shaft in the 1870s by hiding their gold diggings in various caches throughout the ancient, forbidding Superstition Mountains

In the last century, multiple maps reputed to show the location of the mine have surfaced, but none have yielded the expected results. At least six men have died searching for the gold in the harsh landscape that precludes the use of vehicles. In 2015, a group of five friends and supporters, called the Arcana Exploration, claimed to have determined the location of the lost mine, but they have provided few details.

Overlooked Treasures

Not all buried treasures are famous or worth millions of dollars but are more likely to exist, easier to find with minimal equipment, and located at sites more accessible to searchers. These treasures are the savings of silver and gold coins hidden by their owners in the years before banks were widely accepted as safe guardians of important documents and currency. Frank Pandozzi, TV producer and treasure hunter, claims, “Treasures are out there, just waiting to be found, and some of them may be closer than you think.”

My great-grandfather, Joseph Noah Forsyth, was born in Tennessee in 1857 and migrated to West Texas in the 1880s looking for new opportunities. By his death in 1924, he was considered a wealthy man, owning two cotton farms and a cotton gin in North Texas and a cattle ranch in eastern New Mexico. Like his peers, Grandfather Forsyth kept his savings in large glass jars buried on his various properties, waiting for a financial emergency that never came in his lifetime.

The locations of the hidden jars were confidential, never disclosed to his wife Alta or to any of his four sons and three daughters. Struck dumb by a stroke at 67 and dying shortly soon after, he never had the opportunity to reveal the secret sites. Although the family searched for the coins until losing the title to the properties during the Great Depression, they were never found.

Have the caches of Grandfather Forsyth’s coins been discovered since, or do they remain buried, waiting for a local treasure hunter to discover them? Like the Dutchman’s Lost Mine, we may never know. Today, amateur treasure hunters, equipped with inexpensive metal detectors, spend their evenings and weekends exploring the grounds around old homesteads and abandoned settlements in the hopes of uncovering buried valuables whose locations have been forgotten over the years.

Treasure Hunting Tools

Due to the expense and necessary reliance on sophisticated technology, underwater treasure hunts are not practical for most people, limiting their searches to dry land and shallow rivers and ponds. In most cases, neither a revolver nor a rawhide whip, such as that carried by Indiana Jones, is appropriate since few hunters encounter hostile forces protecting hidden treasures or Nazi soldiers seeking an Armageddon-type weapon. However, an old, worn fedora, its edges turned down to shade the face and add a touch of mystery to the wearer, is always appropriate.

Modern searchers on sand beaches, manicured lawns, public parks, or rural farmland need a handheld metal detector equipped with a pinpointer for precise underground locations, as well as headphones to keep nosy bystanders from hearing detector activity. It’s also wise to carry a small shovel or trowel for digging and a bag to hold your finds.

Searching remote, rugged areas, whether alone or with others, requires similar equipment plus protection for the potential dangers that can arise:

  • Water and Gatorade®. Dehydration often results from strenuous activity in the hot sun.  Gatorade® restores the electrolyte balance that results from excessive perspiration.
  • Batteries. Electronic, battery-powered equipment can quickly lose charge with heavy use, so be sure to carry plenty of spare batteries.
  • Maps, Compass, and GPS. Getting lost is a common occurrence when searching in a remote area, many of which do not have cell phone service. One woman, Madilina Taylor, has required rescue three times while searching for the Finn treasure (described below) in the mountains of Wyoming. Rescued explorers may be liable for the costs of their rescue.
  • First Aid Kit. Falls, cuts, sunburn, and insect bites frequently occur when you’re in wilderness areas where vehicle access is limited and assistance is miles away. It’s not unusual to find broken bottles or dusty tin can shards cans even in the most remote places.

Treasure hunting in some areas is especially perilous due to snakes, wild animals, and dangerous plants. America has four venomous snake varieties, with the Western Diamondback rattlesnake being especially prevalent in the deserts and mountains of the West. Pumas, bears, and bison are capable of killing a careless human, while stumbling into a patch of prickly pear cactus or one of its cousins is not a fun experience.

As a consequence, veteran outdoor adventurers suggest wearing snake-proof boots or chaps and gloves when working in snake country. Scorpions, centipedes, and Africanized (killer) bees abound in the arid sections of the Southwest and can make a hunt very unpleasant.

Those who elect to search in the wilder areas of the country should be prepared for possible emergencies with the proper equipment and a plan for rescue if necessary. If possible, hunt with a partner, and be sure that someone knows the location of your search and your expected return time.

Final Word

For most, treasure hunting is a pleasant hobby and an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors. That said, you’re unlikely to find a tattered old map hidden away in a dead man’s chest with directions to an undiscovered cache of gold and jewels. Finding a significant treasure trove is akin to winning the lotto – a dubious outcome, but a pleasant dream nonetheless.

Those who lack the capital to invest in underwater exploration or the physical stamina to hike forbidding terrain might consider the hunt for the $2 million of riches hidden by art gallery owner Forrest Finn in 2010. Aiming to encourage “parents to take their children camping and fishing in the Rocky Mountains,” Finn self-published a 24-line poem with clues to the treasure’s location shortly after its burial.

Finn’s treasure is yet to be claimed, and some have questioned whether it’s real. After the deaths of four people looking for the cache, Finn provided additional clues, noting that he was 80 years old when he hid the treasure and confirming that it “is not underwater, nor is it near the Rio Grande. It is not necessary to move large rocks or climb up or down a steep precipice, and it is not under a man-made object.”

Whatever your success in finding treasure, you will undoubtedly be rewarded for the activity. Avid hunters point to the health benefits of hiking, especially in the rough territory, as well as the joy of exploration. Most claim that treasure hunting stimulates and sharpens the mind, while the possibility of a discovery generates an adrenaline rush. Others talk of their increased self-reliance, improved navigational skills, and social interactions with other fans of the hobby.

Are you a treasure hunter? Do you seek a particular treasure? What have you discovered? Do you have regrets about any of your treasure hunts?

Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.
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