We all wanted to find lost treasure when we were kids, am I right? I know I did. I even spent hours excavating the backyard looking for it- I just knew it had to be there somewhere! Unfortunately all I ever found was dog sh*t and old Coke bottles. I looked for years! Well, actually it was probably more like days but that’s the way I remember it, anyway, and I never came even remotely close. But that didn’t stop me from still wishing I would someday find something. Anything. That’s the allure secret treasure has for all of us.
And why not? After all, there are plenty of legendary treasures out there. Hell, they even made an animated movie about El Dorado, which was so legendary Spanish treasure hunters died by the droves for years trying to find it. Of course, that doesn’t even include all of the myths and legends that Hollywood has both created and perpetuated. You want to talk about lost treasure you don’t have to look any farther than the Indiana Jones franchise. Although if you do, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a pretty good flick too. Just sayin’.
But what about real treasure hunters? You know, the kind of guys that Matthew McConaughey and Steve Zahn played in Sahara– guys who jet around the world looking for sunken ships, ancient sites, and even buried pirate treasure. There are plenty of professionals, dedicated amateurs and even outright nutjobs out there searching for lost treasure right now. You know why? Because every now and then someone either strikes it big and becomes filthy rich or becomes famous or both. So here are the 15 biggest lost treasures ever found. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the park with my metal detector.
15. The Buckingham Hoard- $1 million And Rising
How would you like to find buried treasure to ring in Christmas and the New Year? Well, for a part-time treasure hunter named Paul Coleman that’s exactly what happened on December 21, 2014. That’s right- here we go again with the English and their hoards. This time the buried treasure was found by Coleman in a farmer’s field (sound familiar?) in Lenborough, Buckinghamshire, England. And before you ask, yes, it was in a lead box. Coleman found over 5,000 coins dating from the 10th and early 11th centuries. The initial value of the hoard (I can’t stop writing that word) was about $1 million, but as the coins seemed to be in pristine condition and haven’t been fully analyzed that number could rise. It’s one of the largest hoards ever found in England. That is, until next week, when some kids will surely find a Viking boat made of solid gold in the bottom of the pond behind their house.
14. The Sroda Treasure- $50 Million
Ever hear of the town of Sroda Slaska in Poland? I hadn’t either until I began writing this article. It seems like Sroda Slaska is the place treasure hunters should go who have graduated from using metal detectors in ploughed fields to just knocking over whole buildings. Between 1985 and 1988, a few buildings were demolished for renovation. The first time they did it, a collection of 3,000 silver coins from the 1300s was found. The next building they demolished revealed more silver, gold coins and a gold crown as well as gold jewelry. Since no one really knows what this stuff is, its value is estimated between $50-100 million. The English would have to find 20 or 30 of their hoards to match that!
13. The Atocha Motherlode- $450 Million
Mel Fisher is a legend among treasure hunters and it’s no wonder. The Key West local located the sunken treasure of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha and brought its loot to the surface for 17 years. His legal battle was also about that long but he won it in the end. There’s no wonder it took 17 years to scour the ocean floor for this ship’s treasure- a treasure lost in 1622 off the Keys. It was packed with tons of gold and silver. Legend has it that the ship was so big it took two months to load and the Spanish were so upset with its loss that they sent five more ships to recover it- unsuccessfully. The treasure remained hidden until Fisher found it.
12. The Black Swan Project- $500 Million
In typical treasure hunting style, this shipwreck is shrouded in mystery. The ship in question might be a Spanish ship sunk by the British in 1804. And then again, it might not. All that anybody really knows is that Odyssey Marine Exploration, a big-time, professional treasure hunting outfit, flew tons of silver from Gibraltar to America in 2007. Nobody really knows if it came from one ship or two or a dozen. What everybody does know is that, where there’s $500 million to be had, there will also be lawyers. The Spanish government, for one, insisted the treasure was theirs. They won the case and all of the treasure was flown back to Spain.
11. The Cuerdale Treasures- $2.6 Million
Ancient Viking treasures found in England actually seems to be a thing, as many of relative value have been found throughout the years. This particular lost treasure consists of a bunch of silver coins, ingots and even pieces of jewelry. In classic lost treasure fashion, it was found inside a lead box in 1840 when workmen dug into a river embankment they were shoring up and struck gold (well, silver). Its worth is estimated at $2.6 million and much of it now resides in the British Museum. That’s right; the workers gave it up after taking a coin or two each. I’m not sure I would have been so generous. I’m also not sure why this treasure isn’t called a hoard but more on that later.
10. The Bactrian Gold- $1 Million-Priceless
Gold has a strange fascination for people- it gets in their heads big time. A case in point is the Bactrian Gold. This treasure was discovered by a Soviet-led archeological team in 1979. The team was excavating an ancient burial mound in northern Afghanistan. What they found, hidden by nomads centuries before, was 21,000 (!) pieces of gold in multiple chambers of the mound. It was all catalogued and then sent to the national bank of Afghanistan. Then, throughout the Soviet-Afghan war, into the time of the Taliban and on through the first years of the new Afghan republic, almost everyone wondered what had become of the gold- with multiple accusations that former KGB men, presidents, bank officers, Taliban rulers and even other foreign meddlers (i.e. the Americans) had stolen it, melted it down or just plain hidden it. However, unbeknownst to all, the gold sat in the bank in ten cheap tin boxes behind a pile of old soviet coinage, forgotten by just about everyone until it was “found” in 2003. It was part of over $80 million in gold the bank had in its vaults!
9. The Hoxne Hoard- $3 Million
Here’s another buried treasure, back in England, land of lost treasures, although this time it wasn’t necessarily all Viking loot. In 1992 a farmer lost his hammer in one of his fields (what he was doing with a hammer in the middle of a field is another story, I guess). He asked his friend, the metal detector guy- everyone knows someone who knows someone with a metal detector- to help search for it. Instead they found a wooden chest full of, you guessed it, silver and gold. They brought in experts and the whole field was turned up, revealing more old stuff, including Roman artifacts. It was all sold to the British Museum for slightly over $3 million sterling. Even the hammer.
8. The Staffordshire Hoard- Over $3 Million
The year was 2009. The place, Hammerwich in Staffordshire, England. And the treasure? Viking gold, found by one Terry Herbert, who just happened to be checking out a newly turned-over field with his metal detector. I told you everybody knows a guy with a metal detector! Terry had stumbled upon a huge collection of military and religious artifacts. Which, honestly, seems to happen every other week over in England. I mean seriously, I’m just about ready to buy a metal detector and hop the next flight over there. Anyway, the hoard (and don’t you just love that term? It’s straight out of The Hobbit) was worth about $3.3 million. Or just enough money to give every child in England a metal detector.
7. The Belitung Shipwreck- $80-90 Million
Alright it’s time to get off the land and into the ocean, where the real treasure always seems to be. Our first sunken treasure comes from a wreck off of Indonesia that was discovered by local fishermen in less than sixty feet of water, which is pretty shallow for this kind of thing. It was determined that the Belitung (or Tang) treasure came from an Arabian trader that had sailed all the way to China and sunk off course on its return voyage. It sunk in the early 800s and was discovered in 1998. The ship had a crazily eclectic assortment of goods- Chinese vases and dishes, Iranian bowls, assorted Asian and Persian wares and even one of the largest gold cups ever found. It’s all owned by the Indonesian tourism board now. And no, it’s not called a hoard – bummer.
6. The S.S. Central America Shipwreck- $100-150 Million
This ship went down due to a hurricane in 1857 off the southeastern coast of the United States. It became known, infamously, as the “Ship of Gold,” as it was carrying over 15 tons (that’s right, tons) of the stuff when it went down. There was so damn much gold on this ship it precipitated a financial panic when it sank and, when it was found in 1987-88, it caused a monster legal battle between those who discovered it and the thirty-nine insurance companies who had paid out on claims on the gold the previous century. The team that found it ended up getting over 90% of the haul while the insurance companies saw very little. One gold ingot found in the wreckage, weighing almost 80 lbs., sold for $36 million.
5. The Antikythera Shipwreck- $120-160 Million
It was only a matter of time before we came across a lost treasure from the ancient world. In 1900, sponge divers off Crete discovered a wreck believed to be 2,000 years old. Explorers and treasure hunters sanctioned by the Greek Archeological office managed to bring bits and pieces of treasure to the surface but it wasn’t until 1976 that modern divers found a sophisticated “mechanism” that appears to have been an ancient device capable of charting the movement of celestial bodies- gotta love those ancient Greeks! Searchers have also found plenty of coins, jars, rare glass items, and statues such as the “Statue of Youth,” a bronze statue dated to the early 300s- B.C.E. that is! As recently as 2014, further artifacts were brought up from the wreck.
4. The S.S. Republic Shipwreck- $120-180 Million
Here’s another in a long line of 1800’s shipwrecks found off the coast of the U.S. in the 2000s. This time, the S.S. Republic was found in 2003 off of Savannah, Georgia. The steamship had sunk in 1865 while on a run to New Orleans, another casualty of time and place for America during the Civil War. As always, there were plenty of lawsuits surrounding legal ownership of the treasure. Which is not all that surprising considering the ship went down with a hell of a lot of gold and silver on it, not to mention what are now considered historical artifacts like barrels, dishes and tea sets. I don’t know about anyone else but I’ll take the coinage!
3. The Panagyurishte Treasure- Priceless
Back on land (finally!) we travel to the European country of Bulgaria, where, in 1949, three brothers were digging around near a factory in the town of Panagyurishte when they found some odd stuff. And no, they weren’t actually digging for treasure but loading up their wheelbarrow (or truck or whatever) with clay. I’m pretty sure they were happy with what they found, however, when the odd objects they were unearthing turned out to be ancient golden ceremonial drinking horns, decanters, platters and more. All in all, over 13 lbs. of gold were pulled from the muck, making a day’s work a priceless venture.
2. The Caesarea Treasure- Priceless
Most of us think of national parks as places to explore stunning natural beauty, buy overpriced shot glasses in the gift shop, and avoid getting mauled by the local wildlife. But last year a group of divers in Israel found some gold coins in the harbor of Caesarea National Park. The Israeli government put teams of searchers into the field and ended up finding over 2,000 gold coins in the area. They have dated the oldest coins to the 800s and put a price tag on the find of, are you ready for this? Priceless. I keep changing my mind with this list- first I was going to move to England with my metal detector, then it was Poland and a wrecking ball but now I think I’ll just invest in a Scuba gear…
1. The Titanic – ???
The most famous shipwreck of all time came with a high cost in human life, as almost 1,500 people died in the North Atlantic ocean on April 15, 1912, after the luxury liner, considered by almost everyone to be unsinkable (and touted as such) went down. As the huge box office hit Titanic showed in graphic detail, boats don’t beat icebergs when the two collide. The ship was found on the ocean floor by a team of scientists led by Robert Ballard in 1985. Artifacts brought up by successive visits have been auctioned off or sold outright for huge amounts of money, such as the famous violin that orchestra member Wallace Hartley played while the ship sank; it was sold for $1.7 million in 2013. A simple kimono worn by a female passenger fetched over $75,000 in 2012. A kimono?! These are just two items, mind you. The list of expensive Titanic artifacts seems endless and they will doubtless be auctioned off again as new owners pass on.