“That belongs in a museum!” Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones famously said. If you found buried treasure, what would you do with it? Keep it? Sell it? Turn it over to a museum?
While finding a fabled hoard can be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for fame and fortune, treasure does not come without drawbacks. Here are some incredible recent treasure discoveries, as well as the controversies that followed.
Vietnam veteran and rare art collector Forrest Fenn had an epiphany during his recovery from illness. He had a sudden drive to inspire people to find adventure in the great outdoors.
So in 2010, he buried a bronze chest from the 12th-century “somewhere in the mountains north of Santa Fe”. Fenn filled the chest with gold coins, nuggets, jewels, and rare artifacts. Its estimated worth was two to three million dollars, and whoever found it, could keep it. Over 350,000 people from around the world arrived to scour the Rockies, from New Mexico all the way to Montana.
Fenn provided nine clues in his memoir The Thrill of the Chase. He wrote a poem that included clues like “the home of Brown”, “where warm waters halt”, and “just heavy loads and water high”.
Forrest Fenn and his treasure. Photo: Forrest Fenn/ Dal Neitzel
These were difficult clues, and the search resulted in some run-ins with the law. Police arrested treasure hunters for trespassing, burglary, attempted armed robbery, activities without proper permits, and wasting police time.
In addition to this, Fenn endured a couple of lawsuits from sore losers who claimed that the art collector gave treasure hunters false information or moved the treasure to another location. The search also resulted in five deaths! But despite everything, the hunt continued.
In June 2020, medical student Jack Stuef finally found the treasure. He spent 25 days over a two-year period searching the Rockies in Wyoming. Fenn verified Stuef’s victory before passing away in September of the same year.
Stuef sold the treasure to pay off his student loans. The exact location Stuef found the treasure is still a mystery out of respect for Fenn, who wished to use it as his final resting place.
The Vindelev Viking hoard
What are the odds of finding treasure on your first try with a metal detector?
A man named Ole Ginnerup Schytz decided to try his luck on a piece of land in the town of Vindelev in Denmark. When his metal detector went off, he didn’t think much of the dirty object he found. But on closer inspection, he went with his gut and informed the Vejle Museum. Archeologists from the museum hurried to the site to excavate.
The tiny piece of metal Schytz had found was 1,500 years old, from the Iron Age. The museum’s archeologists ended up excavating over one kilogram of gold bracteates (thin disk pendants), jewelry, and Roman coins.
One of the medallions. Photo: Vejlemuseerne
The hoard led to several discoveries. Archaeologists believe that a chieftain may have ruled the town and that the site could have been a langhús (a communal dwelling). Some coins bore the image of Emperor Constantine, which suggests that trading with European kingdoms took place earlier than previously believed. Finally, they believe the inhabitants buried the hoard to appease the gods during a tumultuous time of famine, desperation, and a devastating volcanic eruption that affected all of northern Europe.
Norfolk Anglo-Saxon hoard
In 1991, archaeologists uncovered one of Britain’s largest Anglo-Saxon gold hoards in west Norfolk. They found Byzantine and Merovingian gold coins, and other gold objects dating back to 610 AD. They are up to 95% pure gold and worth over $550,000. Previously found treasure hoards, like the Staffordshire Hoard and treasure found at Sutton Hoo, also date from this period.
Norfolk hoard. Photo: British Museum
In 1996, Britain decided to pass the Treasure Act. The Treasure Act declares that when a person finds any treasure in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, or Wales, they must report it within 14 days. To classify as treasure, it must be at least 300 years old and include at least two coins that contain 10% precious metals. The finder must be compensated at a price determined by the Treasure Valuation Committee.
In 2017, a local police officer was jailed for 16 months after finding several coins and trying to sell them for over $20,000.
Nuestra Señora de Las Mercedes
In 2007, a company called Odyssey Marine Exploration found a sunken shipwreck off Cape Santa Maria in Portugal. At a depth of 1,130m, it contained more than 500,000 silver and gold coins, and other objects worth over $600 million.
The wreck was initially thought to be the remnants of a ship called the Merchant Royal. Upon further investigation, experts decided it was the ill-fated Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a Spanish ship transporting cargo from Uruguay to Spain that the British sunk in 1804.
Coins from the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes. Photo: Benjamin Nunez Gonzalez
The ship originally carried two million peso coins, two million dollars worth of silver and gold objects, spices, kitchenware, cutlery, exotic animals, and more. Odyssey Marine Exploration extracted the surviving treasure and kept it in temperature-controlled storage en route back to the United States.
When word got out about the discovery, the Spanish government claimed it. Courts ruled in favor of Spain and the treasure now resides in the National Museum of Underwater Archaeology in Cartagena.
1715 treasure fleet
This treasure is the gift that keeps on giving. On Vero Beach in Florida, visitors occasionally find little surprises in the sand. Gold and silver coins kept finding their way into the hands of surprised Americans, which begs the question: Where do they keep coming from?
During the 18th and 19th centuries, Spain’s power was waning. A succession of wars had left government coffers bare, and so a fleet of 12 ships sailed to the New World to bring riches back to the homeland. The Spanish loaded them with porcelain, gold, silver, jewelry, and precious stones.
Escudos Lima from 1710. Photo: Augi Garcia for Daniel Frank Sediwck, LLC Treasure Auction #4
But disaster struck. A hurricane destroyed the fleet shortly after it left port. The Spanish salvaged some of the treasure, and a pirate named Henry Jennings made off with a portion, but much of the treasure still remains beneath the waves. Sometimes, the tides bring objects to Florida’s shores. Florida’s Atlantic Coast is now known as the Treasure Coast and a company called Queens Jewels owns the rights to the treasure.
About the Author
Kristine De Abreu
Kristine De Abreu is a writer (and occasional photographer) based in sunny Trinidad and Tobago.
Since graduating from the University of Leicester with a BA in English and History, she has pursued a full-time writing career, exploring multiple niches before settling on travel and exploration. While studying for an additional diploma in travel journalism with the British College of Journalism, she began writing for ExWeb.
Currently, she works at a travel magazine in Trinidad as an editorial assistant and is also ExWeb’s Weird Wonder Woman, reporting on the world’s natural oddities as well as general stories from the world of exploration.
Although she isn’t a climber (yet!), she hikes in the bush, has been known to make friends with iguanas and quote the Lord of the Rings trilogy from start to finish.