Have you ever looked for buried treasure as a kid? Maybe you dug a bunch of holes at the beach with your bright red shovel, just hoping to find something incredible. Or maybe you were shocked to find an old pirate map in the attic and followed that ominous X marks the spot … oh wait, that’s The Goonies.
But what if you didn’t need a thriving imagination to make treasure hunting a thrilling experience? What if real treasure appeared practically right under your nose? Well, one California couple experienced this chance happening one lucky day in 2013; the immediate aftermath, however, was anything but a dream.
In February of 2013, a California couple took their pooch on a leisurely stroll through a trail located on their property in Gold Country. The light conversation between the happy duo stopped when something on the trail caught the sun’s reflection.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune
This was gold country, after all. Sunlight catching a bit of metal sounded like the first sign of a fat chunk of valuable ore. So, the two walked over to whatever the object was and started digging it up.
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As they dug, the duo realized they weren’t looking at some tiny gold flake: there was some substance to whatever was reflecting the sun. Had they struck it rich? They felt like old prospectors as they dug faster and faster.
The curious couple, who remain anonymous, dug up what turned out to be a tin can. They were disappointed. This wasn’t gold. This wasn’t treasure. At least, it didn’t appear that way at first. But then they kept digging.
Soon, the couple realized that what they thought was some ancient Folgers container was actually much more, especially when they uncovered not one, not two, but seven more tin cans for a grand total of eight.
Inside the cans were exactly 1,411 gold coins. Unbelievably, these aged coins were minted somewhere between 1847 and 1894, and they were in stellar condition. The couple couldn’t believe their eyes — and didn’t realize how vulnerable this made them.
By a stroke of luck, the walkers discovered the largest and most profitable lost treasure in American history, as the find was worth a whopping 10 million buckaroos (and it wasn’t even in a treasure chest)! Soon, though, they became a target.
After their lucky find went public, media outlets tracked down an old newspaper clip detailing that an oddly similar amount of gold coins were robbed from the San Francisco branch of the U.S. Mint in 1901. Was this the same loot?
While the coins technically added up to about $28,000, they were rare and in pristine condition, making them worth millions. But because authorities suspected them to be from said heist, the loot was at risk to be claimed by the U.S. government.
“It is with regret, however, that I record that the count of coin in the mint at San Francisco at the close of the fiscal year revealed a shortage of $30,000,” wrote the mint’s director in his annual report in 1901.
Though Walter Dimmick, who was once the San Francisco mint’s chief clerk, was found guilty of stealing the $30,000 worth of gold coins in 1903, the treasure had been missing ever since. So, it was looking like it was the same plunder.
But upon further inspection by the Treasury and the couple’s coin dealer, Don Kagin, the spoils, now known as the Saddle Ridge Hoard, didn’t look quite like the ones that were robbed in 1900. Too many details didn’t match up.
Ivan Natividad / The Union
According to Don Kagin, some of the coins had imprints from other US mints, such as ones from New Orleans and Philadelphia. And since the San Francisco mint didn’t collect old coins, it didn’t make sense for it to have various outside gold from the 1800s.
Nancy Oliver, co-author of A Mighty Fortress: The Stories Behind the 2nd San Francisco Mint, too, declared there was “no relationship.” She explained that the coins in the 1901 robbery came straight from the cashier’s vault, which only possessed coins minted during that fiscal year.
And after several more people inspected the Saddle Ridge Hoard, including U.S. mint officials, they all came to the conclusion that the government had no reason to claim the booty. But that didn’t stop common folk from attempting to get their grubby hands on the treasure.
Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times
Don Kagin relayed that several people have contacted his firm with sketchy tales of the loot belonging to their great-grandfather, with others insisting they were certain the coins were from some random heist. There were conspiracy theorists everywhere!
Don, who likely didn’t believe any of these hacks, encouraged said theorists and money-grubbers to submit an inventory of what they thought they owned, but of course no one took him up on the offer.
Mike Kepka / The Chronicle
Both Don and Nancy believe the coins were simply stashed away over time, likely by someone who worked in California gold mines — kind of like when untrusting people stuff their mattress with cash.
“It was probably someone in the mining industry who was getting his bonuses and not trusting the banks,” said Don. He thought there was no reason the couple couldn’t lay legal claim on their prosperous find.
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And though Don has dealt with coin discoveries worth a ton more than the Saddle Ridge Hoard, the media bombarded him during this time. People couldn’t get enough of this story, likely because it hits close to home, literally.
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“People can actually find coins on their property. They don’t think they can don scuba gear and go find shipwreck treasure. People fantasize about that. And here’s a couple that did that, and they weren’t even looking for it!” Don said.
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The middle-aged couple planned on putting most of the coins up for sale on Amazon, holding onto a few gold pieces as keepsakes and donating some of the cash they make to local charities.
But before they sell their buried treasure, the couple loaned some coins to the American Numismatic Association for its National Money Show in Atlanta. They were just happy to avoid legal troubles — they’d heard horror stories.
Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times
Kate Harding peered at the police officers standing on the doorstep of the Ludlow, England, apartment she shared with her boyfriend. Surely, she told them, there had to be some mistake.
The 23-year-old tried recalling everything she’d done in the past few days. Nothing criminal came to mind. So why were officers placing her in handcuffs? Her jaw dropped when they said her crime started 14 years earlier when she was nine.
See, back then, on a summer day, Kate was outside gardening with her mother. Her afternoon became a lot more interesting when she heard the rare metallic tink of her shovel striking something besides soil and gnarled tree roots.
Hidden away in the earth was a small, silver coin. Kate didn’t hesitate, reaching out for it with the enthusiasm and curiosity of a kid. A quick inspection made one fact clear to the nine-year-old.
She had no idea what this coin was! This was no half-crown or schilling, but a much older currency that looked hand-minted. A simple crown marked the coin’s face, and a language Kate didn’t recognize lined the perimeter.
Unsure of exactly what she was holding, Kate did what any nine-year-old would: she put the coin in her messy room and pretty much forgot about it. The chunk of ancient metal remained there until she was forced to re-visit it.
Shortly after finding that coin in the garden, Kate’s mother tragically passed away, which gave a whole new meaning to the piece. What was once a chunk of old metal was now a reminder of sunny afternoons Kate spent gardening with her mother.
So Kate placed the coin — now a physical embodiment of her mother’s memory — into a safe spot. For 14 years, she held on to the piece, and as its importance to her grew, so, too, did her desire to know more about it.
Kate Harding / Facebook
With a head full of questions, Kate pocketed the coin and headed to the Ludlow Museum, where she met with experts well-versed in Ancient British currency. They had some answers — and some questions.
Right away, the experts recognized the coin as a French piedfort, this piece specifically thought to be associated with Charles IV’s rise to power in the 1300s. Back then, it was worth exactly nothing. It wasn’t used for currency.
Experts believe the coin was used as a guide for mints or reckoning counters for officials, and they could only point to three other piedforts that had been found in England. One of those coins, to Kate’s surprise, was sold for £1,800 to the British Museum.
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Even more surprising was that Ludlow Museum experts estimated her particular piedfort could snag £2,000, or about $2,600. They suggested she take the coin to a coroner, an official responsible for protecting all the Crown’s private property.
But to Kate, this coin was worth so much more than a few thousand pounds; it was, after all, a token, a fond memory of summer days dirtying jeans in the garden with her beloved mother. There was no way she could sell it.
So now, not wanting to part with the coin that experts just told her to bring to a coroner, Kate did what any 23-year-old would: she put the coin in her room and pretty much forgot about it. She ignored phone calls from the museum, too.
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She could no longer ignore the piedfort in her bedroom, however, when she received that knock on the door from a few police officers. They’d received a tip from museum officials — and she was facing jail time.
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As it turned out, weeks after Kate left the Ludlow Museum, the experts called the coroner themselves. Kate wasn’t returning their calls or answering their letters, they said, and she was violating English law.
And they were right: According to England’s Treasure Act of 1996, 300-year-old treasures with a certain metal make-up must be reported to a coroner in 14 days. Kate, despite now knowing the piedfort’s origins, failed to inform officials.
That led the local coroner, after that call from the Ludlow Museum, to notify the police. Kate was booked and faced three months in prison and hefty fines, but she felt she could argue her way out of it in court.
Kate’s lawyers made two arguments to the Ludlow Magistrates’ Court: the first was that Kate was “disorganized,” claiming she lost the coin shortly after its valuation at the Ludlow Museum. Their next move was more convincing.
They argued that because Kate found the coin before the 1996 Treasure Act was passed, her find wasn’t subjected to its enforcement. The court considered all of this before issuing a ruling.
After Kate agreed to turn the coin over to the coroner, The Crown Prosecution Service dropped the case. “We took the view that, having considered all of the circumstances of this case, it was no longer appropriate to proceed with a prosecution against Ms. Harding,” a spokesmen said.
Thankfully, Kate had others to commiserate the loss of her sentimental coin with. In 2009, unemployed Terry Herbert of West Midlands, Britain, dedicated every day to his one true love: treasure hunting. The hobby landed him in serious trouble, though it was a bit different from Kate’s experience.
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Most of his days were spent grazing through the plush fields of the West Midlands, waiting to hear the rare high-pitched beep of his metal detector. His searches usually ended in silence…until one summer day when everything changed.
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Fourteen years before that fateful July day, Terry was at a yard sale when he came across a used metal detector. It was ￡2.50, and it became his tool of choice over the next decade. It also led him to his fortune…
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And so, on that day in 2009, Terry and his metal detector searched through grass and dirt for something interesting. This time, he took his hunt to his friend Fred Johnson’s farm. He didn’t expect much to happen…until he heard the aforementioned beeping.
He immediately started digging, and when he came upon a small, indistinguishable object that looked a lot like gold, all he saw were dollar signs. So did the historians he called to appraise the objects.
After days of digging, it was deduced that Terry had uncovered the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon treasures in British history. Every piece of misshapen gold and silver was valued at a higher price than anyone expected — least of all Terry and Fred.
About￡3.28 million ($4 million) later, Terry and Fred were international sensations…they just had to figure out the “money” thing. It was a complicated situation: Sure, Terry found the loot, but it was all buried on Fred’s land. So the two came to an agreement.
They decided to split the money 50/50. But as the years passed, both men had time to think about their little agreement…and the more pages they turned on their calendars, the more dissatisfied both men became.
In his new bungalow, Terry had a realization: Why did he have to share the money? He was “not that happy with [his] lot really,” he said. He remembered a prophetic warning he had received long before he even found the treasure.
“Five years before…I was warned off of it because I was told Fred would want all of anything that was found,” Terry revealed. This stuck with him in the years following the discovery, and a decade later, he had a message for Fred.
“He’s acting like a child and cutting his nose off to spite his face….I’m not sure…we can patch things up,” Terry admitted. He likened the treasure to a “curse” — despite it making him rich, he thinks it destroyed his friendship with Fred.
A good feud has anger on both sides, and Fred more than supplied his share. “I wish I’d never met the man,” Fred said of Terry and his metal detector. “It has caused me nothing but bother, all of this.”
Like Terry, Fred blames greed for ruining their friendship. “Sometimes I just wish one of the poor veterinary students had found it instead, because it would have set them up for life rather than me,” Fred lamented.
It’s true: In a twist move, Fred claimed that the money meant very little to him. What he valued was hard work and loyalty — two things Terry, according to Fred, had pushed aside as soon as he heard his metal detector beep.
But when Terry heard this accusation, he was quick to deny it. “Sometimes, I wish I’d never found that hoard,” he admitted, citing the problems caused by the money. You always hear of people regretting their riches, but you never think it’s true…
For the two ex-friends, however, the rift the money caused is all too real, not to mention permanent. The strangest part? Three years after Terry’s lighting-in-a-bottle discovery, archaeologists captured lighting-in-a-bottle once again.
In an ironic turn of events, archaeologists in 2012 found even more artifacts buried underneath Fred’s property, which meant more money going Terry and Fred’s way. The world waited to see if the duo would use this chance to rekindle their friendship…
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But all the money in the world wouldn’t bring them back together, and Fred’s plowed fields only stirred up painful memories. “Some people would write to me asking permission [to search], but I’d chuck the letters in the fire,” Fred said.
Even ten years after the discovery, the duo hasn’t buried the hatchet. At an event that marked the 10 year anniversary, Fred showed up without Terry. “Terry was never a friend, so I haven’t lost any friends,” he claimed.
For Fred, the most exciting part of the whole experience wasn’t the money or the feud with Terry — it was the discovery itself. “The money was a plus but seeing the treasure coming out of the ground was a wonderful experience,” he said.
Terry and Fred’s findings will change the way we think about Saxon Britain forever. Among the treasure found were golden crosses, sword hilt fittings, and numerous jewels. Some consider it a tragedy that such priceless artifacts were buried for so long…
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But for others, the real tragedy is Terry and Fred’s ruined friendship. Yes, the history-making treasure sheds light on Britain’s past, but at what cost? Some believe that everyone would be better off had the treasure never been found.
But the allure of riches will always be too strong. At least, that’s how the eccentric Forrest Fenn, an 87-year-old in Santa Fe, New Mexico, saw it. He, along with his wife Peggy, dealt artworks and antiques out of a high-end gallery, and he tore his community apart with promises of gold.
He receives 90 emails per day, none of which inquire about the exotic items in his personal collection (like a mummified falcon from King Tut’s tomb or Sitting Bull’s peace pipe, to name a few). They don’t ask about the paintings he’s sold, either. Instead, they ask about hidden treasure.
See, a few decades ago in 1988, Forrest faced mortality in a serious way. Diagnosed with terminal kidney cancer he wanted to leave his mark on the world in a meaningful way. So he plotted a crazy scheme: Bring treasure into the mountains and die beside it.
Amazingly, Forrest beat cancer so he shelved his treasure idea… at least for a few decades. On his 80th birthday, however, in the thick of an intense American recession, Forrest revisited the idea.
“Lots of people [were] losing their jobs,” Forrest recalled. “Despair was written all over the headlines, and I just wanted to give some people hope.” Treasure could be that hope. Who doesn’t secretly wish to find treasure and strike it rich?
Nick Cote / The New York Times
So the 80-year-old man loaded a 10-inch-by-10-inch Romanesque box into the back of his sedan and stuffed an estimated $2 to $5 million worth of jewels, trinkets, and gold coins into a backpack. Then, he started to drive…
He drove into the Rocky Mountains before parking his car and making two short trips on foot: One, where he carried the box to the hiding spot; another to bring the jewels to that box. He hid the 42-pound chest, but “don’t say I buried it,” he added, cryptically.
Curious treasure hunters now send him emails pleading for more information as to where the treasure might be. Sometimes, Forrest gives little hints, but most of the time, he lets the major clue he left behind do the talking…
Luis Sánches Saturno / The New Mexican
Forrest published the memoir titled The Thrill of the Chase, a book once found only in a single New Mexico bookstore. On page 132 of the memoir, he included a cryptic 24-line poem that points towards the treasure’s final hiding spot. It goes like this…
“As I have gone alone in there / And with my treasures bold, / I can keep my secret where, / And hint of riches new and old. / Begin it where warm waters halt / And take it in the canyon down, / Not far, but too far to walk. / Put in below the home of Brown…
From there it’s no place for the meek, / The end is ever drawing nigh; / There’ll be no paddle up your creek, / Just heavy loads and water high. / If you’ve been wise and found the blaze, / Look quickly down, your quest to cease, / But tarry scant with marvel gaze, / Just take the chest and go in peace…
So why is it that I must go, / And leave my trove for all to seek? / The answers I already know, / I’ve done it tired, and now I’m weak. / So hear me all and listen good, / Your effort will be worth the cold. / If you are brave and in the wood / I give you title to the gold.”
Naturally, people were stumped by the poem, which Forrest insisted contains 9 distinct clues as to the treasure’s location. Dedicated communities pooled their resources, playing at Indiana Jones in the hopes they find the treasure.
As of July 2018, the treasure remained unfound. But the search wasn’t a zero-sum game for all adventurers and amateur travel hunters. For instance, Dal Neitzel of Washington, below, managed a TV station by day—but by night…
Dal made 70 trips to the Rockies over the years, searching for the treasure, and led a blog titled “The Thrill of the Chase” (sound familiar?), an online forum for people discussing the hunt. He, like many others, was thrilled by the adventure…
Another treasure hunter claimed clues from the poem guided her to the Christ of the Mines Shrine in Silverton, Colorado. She didn’t find treasure there. But, she found “the eternal love of Christ”— a spiritual treasure.
Meanwhile, the memoir that once sold for peanuts started selling for over $1,000 on Amazon. With such demand, Forrest started doing book signings, too. People wanted to comb through the book for insights into Forrest’s thinking—anything for the treasure.
Overall, Forrest estimated over 350,000 people went searching through the Rocky Mountains for his treasure. Unfortunately, not all of them lived to tell tales of spiritual re-awakenings and fun adventures…
Six people have died in pursuit of the Forrest Fenn treasure, including Randy Bilyeu, below. Authorities found his car, his raft, and his dog at the Rio Grande south of Santa Fe, but he never turned up. Eventually, the man’s death was blamed on Forrest…
New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas, below, pressured Forrest to end the treasure hunt. But Forrest never relented, reminding people the treasure was in a spot an 80-year-old man could get to in a sedan.
In fact, Forrest reminded hunters he ultimately hid the treasure to inspire family-friendly adventure. Kids “spend too much time in the game room or playing with their little handheld texting machines,” he said. The treasure—the hope—was for them, too.
“The search is supposed to be fun,” he said. To appease authorities he also noted that the treasure “is not underwater, nor is it near the Rio Grande River. It is not necessary to move large rocks or climb up or down a steep precipice.” Still, people are suspicious.
Forrest’s detractors claimed the hunt was nothing more than publicity for his memoir—the treasure, they say, never existed. The bookstore, however, claimed he never took a penny from sales. As to the treasure’s existence…
A friend of Forrest’s, New York Times best-selling author Doug Preston—who actually sawthe treasure at Forrest’s house—put it best: “Knowing Forrest for as long as I have, I can absolutely say with 100 percent confidence that he would never pull off a hoax.”
Indeed, by all accounts, Forrest’s definitely the type of guy who would bury $2 million in jewels. “Sure, I’m eccentric,” he once said. “I pride myself on being eccentric. I don’t want to go down the center line like a lot of people do.”
And hunters better not hope for some deathbed confession from Forrest. “No one knows where that treasure chest is but me,” he said. Even his family remains in the dark. “If I die tomorrow, the knowledge of that location goes in the coffin with me.”
With all the fun and excitement around the hunt, Forrest admitted hiding the treasure was “successful beyond [his] wildest dreams.” But who will be the lucky person to finally find it?