There's gold in them thar' hills—well, somewhere. At least, so the story goes. Many ancient and modern treasures are still missing, and sometimes recovered, all over the world, and their stories never fail to intrigue.
This collection of some of the most sought-after treasures includes a range of hidden, lost or buried treasures, including Nazi-plundered precious objects, documents of American history, and pirate treasure. The list includes treasures with values that would make for an impressive unexpected haul for the finder, as well as others worth stratospheric amounts. Read on for fascinating tales of treasures lost (and sometimes found).
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By Colleen Kane
Posted 6 March, 2013
The privately owned Oak Island, off the southern end of Nova Scotia, has been the site of treasure hunting for more than two centuries. It began in 1795 when 18-year-old Daniel McGinnis noticed a circular depression in the ground, with a tackle block (rope and pulley system) attached to a nearby tree. McGinnis and his friends started excavating the hole, unearthing seemingly manmade layers of stone and ancient logs between every ten feet of dirt.They gave up their project at 30 feet, but that was only the beginning of the mystery that became known as the Money Pit.
A key reason the pit is thought to hold treasure is a story from early on in which a stone was uncovered that was inscribed with symbols translating to "forty feet below, two million pounds lie buried." Numerous other excavations followed (even a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt joined one search) and over the decades six people died searching for the treasure, but no one could reach the bottom without the shaft flooding with ocean water. What possible treasure would call for building this elaborate, flood-prone hiding spot? Speculation on whose treasure could be hidden at Oak Island ranges from pirates including Captain Kidd to Freemasons to the Knights Templar to Marie Antoinette.
In 1989, a Philadelphia man spent $4 on an ugly painting at a flea market, purely for the frame. Behind the painting he found something more valuable: a first printing of the Declaration of Independence. That copy sold at auction with Sotheby's for $2.42 million in 1991, and then in 2000 it sold at another Sotheby's auction for $8.14 million.
Given that the profitable find was one of 25 copies known at the time, out of a first edition printing of hundreds, it's easy to understand why there would be interest in finding the other copies. Several more have popped up, but most of that first edition, if they still exist, are out there waiting to be found.
The legendary Amber Room was an example of 18th century opulence, originally located in the Catherine Palace of Tsarskoye Selo near Saint Petersburg, Russia. It was crafted over more than a decade beginning in 1701 from more than six tons of amber panels backed by gold leaf and mirrors. Soon after its completion, it was given to Peter the Great. The results were a radiant chamber of abundant golden glow considered "the Eighth Wonder of the World." Experts estimate its value in today's dollars at $142 million.
Although an attempt was made to hide the valuable panels behind wallpaper during World War II, the famous room was looted by Nazis and removed to Konigsberg, Germany (now Kaliningrad). As World War II approached its end, the treasure went missing in the Allied bombing of Konigsberg. After that, conflicting rumors and theories arose as to the fate of the Amber Room. Many have searched for it, and there are a few books about the missing treasure, but only two elements from the room have ever been recovered: the remains of one Italian stone mosaic panel were found with the family of a soldier who helped pack up the Amber Room, and more mosaic remains were located in the basement of Konigsberg Castle, a site which was bombed out and has since been built over. The Amber Room has since been reconstructed (pictured here) in its original palace, beginning in 1979 and completed in 2003 at a cost of $11 million.
When people picture buried treasure, the visual they usually conjure up is a chest of jewels, gold, and coins. The hope of finding Spanish doubloons has inspired many a metal detector purchase. Although not every metal detector pays for itself in buried treasure discoveries, however, coin hoards really do get discovered and dug up, especially in Great Britain. Last fall, a first-time treasure hunter using a beginner's metal detector found the first 40 coins of 159 in total that became one of the largest hoards of Roman gold "solidi" coins ever unearthed in the U.K., with an estimated value of $150,000.
But that's nothing. Another amateur with a metal detector found 52,000 Roman coins in Frome, Somerset in 2010 worth $1 million. The Roman coins shown here were discovered in Snodland, Kent, and a jar of 80 gold American coins hidden during the Second World War in a London-area yard, dubbed the "Hackney Hoard," were unearthed when a resident was digging a frog pond.
A coin discovery is not always "finders keepers." In the case of the Hackney Hoard, a descendant of the person who buried the coins was located and given most of the proceeds.
The Supermarine Spitfire was a single-seat fighter plane used by the Royal Air Force and other Allied countries during World War II. More than a quarter century ago, British farmer and aviation enthusiast David Cundall never forgot hearing U.S. veterans say they buried a never-used fleet of Spitfire aircraft in the Burmese jungle, to prevent the Japanese from claiming them. He remained intrigued by that tidbit for a decade until about 15 years ago, when he began investigating the claim. At his own expense, he undertook numerous missions to Burma (now Myanmar) and in 2012, he discovered the hidden trove of aircraft, which might include as many as 140 planes. Excavations have begun with government permission, and some of the planes may be returned to Britain.
Anyone who's visited Lynchburg, Virginia has likely heard the tale of the Beale Treasure. It's been an unsolved mystery for code-breakers since the 19th century, when a stranger came to town. Thomas J. Beale spent the winter of 1820 at the Washington Hotel. Although the tall, dark, and handsome Beale was "extremely popular with every one, particularly the ladies," according to the hotel keeper Robert Morriss, no locals learned very much about him.
Two years later he returned and upon his springtime departure he gave Morriss a locked iron box containing what he said were "papers of value and importance." Beale was never heard from again, and 23 years later, presuming him dead, Morriss broke open the box. Inside were papers telling more about the mysterious Mr. Beale. He had discovered gold and silver out West, some of which he traded for jewels to lighten the weight. On his 1820 visit to Lynchburg, he buried the treasure. The rest of the box's contents were three ciphers, two of which have never been decoded.
Cipher two, however, has numbers corresponding to letters in the Declaration of Independence and works out to say this:
"I have deposited in the county of Bedford, about four miles from Buford's, in an excavation or vault, six feet below the surface of the ground, the following articles: ... The deposit consists of two thousand nine hundred and twenty one pounds of gold and five thousand one hundred pounds of silver; also jewels, obtained in St. Louis in exchange for silver to save transportation ... The above is securely packed in iron pots, with iron covers. The vault is roughly lined with stone, and the vessels rest on solid stone, and are covered with others ..."
And with that description of a trove that would be worth many millions today, a legendary treasure hunt was born, and continues on—as do suggestions that perhaps the whole thing was a hoax. More on the story, and those ciphers, are found on a website devoted to the Beale Treasure.
The New York Prohibition-era mob boss Dutch Schultz was involved in bootlegging and the numbers racket until he was gunned down at age 34 in 1935. Before he died, he commissioned an airtight and waterproof safe in which he is said to have stashed diamonds, gold, and $1,000 bills. He and his bodyguard Bernard "Lulu" Rosencrantz hid the safe somewhere in upstate New York, possibly the Catskills village of Phoenicia, and it's never been found. The legend draws treasure hunters to the area and they gather once a year to search for the safe.
A pirate treasure chest is the iconic type of treasure. The Scottish sailor William Kidd went from being a pirate-hunting privateer to a pirate himself, but when he was hung in 1701, most of his plundered fortune was missing. It's never been recovered. Tales have been told of Captain Kidd's treasure being buried at points all over the globe. Treasure hunters have pointed up the Connecticut River to Clarke's Island as one potential hiding spot, and to other spots in Connecticut, while others have searched islands off the coasts off of Vietnam, Japan, Canada, and the Dominican Republic.
From 1885 to 1917, Russian court jeweler Peter Carl Faberge's House of Faberge crafted about 50 jeweled eggs out of precious metals, enamel, and gemstones, which were worn on necklaces, and about 65 large "Imperial" eggs. Eight Faberge eggs have been lost since the Russian Revolution of 1917, when the czar was stripped of valuables. The eggs that disappeared likely went missing during the ransacking of the palaces. Among the missing are the ones depicted here, the 1903 Royal Danish and the Alexander III Commemorative Imperial egg from 1909. The Communist regime held on to the eggs until the 1920s, when it began selling them off, and at least one egg seems to have made it to America. It appeared in a 1934 Lord & Taylor exhibition catalog.
The HMS Victory warship, considered the most technologically advanced craft of its time, sank after becoming separated from its fleet during a severe storm in 1744, and its location was "one of the greatest mysteries of naval history." Speculation about precious gold cargo and bronze cannon on the missing flagship persisted for 264 years. That is, until 2008, when the remains of the Victory were found about 75 miles west of the Channel Island of Guernsey, far from where the vessel was thought to have gone down. The commercial salvage company Odyssey Marine Exploration discovered the wreck, stirring ongoing concern over how best to pursue exploration, and whether Odyssey would be entitled to any of the sunken treasure it should find. There are ethical concerns, as the wreck is a mass grave for the crew of 1,000 that went down with the ship.
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