Few are immune to the lure of a hidden treasure, its location well-protected by natural fortifications and/or the obscure clues of an old map or legend. The intrigue has spawned an array of popular novels, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1880s Treasure Island, and movies including 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, but there are also a few real-life stories of secret valuables and the explorers who sought them. Here are seven of history's most famous treasures — some real and others possibly pure fantasy — that have kept fortune-seekers on the hunt for years.
Discovered in the mid-20th century, the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls represented the archaeological find of a lifetime, yet one of them points to hidden riches of even greater value. The lone manuscript written on a copper scroll, officially designated "3Q15," reveals that around 160 tons of gold and silver are buried in 63 spots throughout modern-day Israel. Unfortunately, some of the wording in the ancient Hebrew text is a mystery to contemporary scholars, while other passages describe vague locations that are nearly impossible to pinpoint. It's been speculated that the valuables have already been dug up by later generations of Jews or the Knights Templar (see below), though the more tantalizing possibility exists that the billions of dollars worth of gold and silver remain up for grabs.
The Knights Templar, founded as the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, wasn't so poor in its heyday, as it loaded up its coffers through the spoils of war, donations of royal benefactors, and oversight of an extensive banking network. Unsurprisingly, the medieval military order’s wealth and influence drew the scrutiny of other powerful figures, and in 1307, King Phillip IV of France set about disbanding the order and claiming its riches. Although many of its members were arrested and executed, the Knights Templar allegedly smuggled their valuables out of Paris via hay carts or vessels. As such, its artifacts could be almost anywhere in the world, although a few collectors in recent years have pieced together what looks to be an impressive assemblage of Templar keepsakes, including a sword, libation cup, helmet, and obsidian chalice.
If the idea of secret caves and boats overflowing with gold tickles your fancy, then how about an entire city? Legend points to one such place in the Peruvian Andes, rumored to be a refuge for the Incas who escaped Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Expeditions have been trying to find Paititi for decades, but the biggest obstacle is its alleged location, in the midst of dense Amazonian growth, treacherous cliffs, and unwelcoming native tribes. In recent years, French explorer Thierry Jamin has followed clues toward an unusual "square mountain" in the Megantoni National Sanctuary of southeastern Peru, though time will tell whether this locale holds the secret city he and legions of predecessors have sought.
While some treasures consist of sparkling gems, others, like the creations of 13th-century Japanese swordsmith Goro Nyudo Masamune, are one-of-kind works of craftsmanship. Masamune forged one particularly potent blade that took on the name of an early wielder, Honjo Shigenaga, and passed through generations of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan into the 19th century. However, shortly after the Honjo Masamune was named a National Treasure in 1939, the loss of World War II led to an order for the Japanese to turn over their swords, including the Tokugawas' 700-year-old katana, to American occupiers. Sleuths have since sought to recover the priceless artifact, with some following the dead-end trail of a "Sgt. Coldy Bimore" who supposedly took possession. Others are resigned to the idea that it sits in the dusty basement or attic of an unknown veteran's surviving family.
While the Japanese surrendered their treasures at the close of World War II, the Nazis supposedly hid theirs by dumping millions of dollars of gold into the Austrian Alps’ Lake Toplitz. But while rumors of the lake being a Nazi repository gained steam when counterfeit Allied currency was found submerged there in the 1960s, divers haven’t uncovered any of its alleged crates of gold. This is partly due to the difficulty of accessing the densely forested region, as well as the characteristics of the lake; frozen for much of the year, it also lacks oxygen in its deeper reaches, allowing the giant trees that fall in to remain preserved and block the path of explorers.
Famed gangster Dutch Schultz met his demise in a hail of gunfire at a New Jersey restaurant in October 1935, but not before delivering a stream of deathbed ramblings that reportedly included clues to a stash of loot hidden in the Catskill Mountains near Phoenicia, New York. Of course, the details of just what was squirreled away and where have changed over the years; it's either a load of cash, jewels, or bonds, and it’s located near a sycamore ... or maybe a pair of pine trees. It’s also worth considering the reliability of the source, who uttered such nuggets as, "Oh, oh; dog biscuit, and when he is happy he doesn't get snappy," as his life slipped away. However, the uncertainty hasn't stopped the treasure-seekers who regularly descend on Phoenicia with the hope of uncovering what could be upwards of $50 million in mob funds.
No list of missing treasures would be complete without mention of a long-lost pirate trove, and this infamous buccaneer reportedly left behind a haul worthy of his formidable reputation. After nearly two years of plundering vessels in the West Indies, Blackbeard's ship, Queen Anne's Revenge, ran into a sandbar off North Carolina in June 1718. From there, it's believed he transferred his valuables to other boats, leaving little sign of his haul when he was killed a few months later by a British Royal Navy force. Although Queen Anne's Revenge was discovered in 1996, it seems the whereabouts of its captain’s big prize became a massive mystery to all except, as Blackbeard once eloquently put it, the legendary pirate himself and the devil.