Can Treasure Hunting Make You Rich?

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Recently in England, Luke Mahoney found a gold coin and a sixpence piece on his way to lunch. He later took his metal detector for a spin and discovered about 1,080 silver coins that could potentially be as old as the civil war. He estimates this trove might be worth £400,000 ($520,000 USD). During the lockdown, many people have taken to new hobbies or rededicated themselves to preexisting hobbies. Perhaps The Goonies, Indiana Jones, the Uncharted video games, or even real news has inspired you. However, before you buy a metal detector and start poring over maps, you should probably take into consideration if treasure hunting in your area is actually legal.

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What Is the Definition of Treasure?

It might intrigue you that the coins Mahoney discovered might not actually be considered treasure. According to England’s Treasure Act of 1996, there are certain criteria in order for treasure to be classified as such. The item(s) must...

  1. Be at least 300 years old AND
  2. Have a substantial gold or silver content.
  3. And have been deliberately concealed by the owner with the intention to unearth it later.
  4. Have an unknown/deceased owner with no legal, known, or present successors or heirs.
  5. “one of at least two coins in the same find and has a precious metal content of at least 10%.
  6. “if the precious metal content is less than 10%, is one of at least ten coins in the same find.”

Source: US Gold Bureau

If his trove doesn’t meet these requirements, it might not technically be considered a treasure. Another example of finding treasure this year took place earlier this year in May. Two children in France discovered gold bars while in COVID-19 lockdown at a family home. The value of this discovery was reportedly worth more than $100,000 USD.

As you can see, finding “treasure” does not always require roughing it in the wilderness. However, whether it is El Dorado or pirate treasure , gold is the stuff of dreams for a reason.

The US and Piracy

Pirates: This is probably the first thing to come to mind when you think of treasure. Scholars classify the Golden Age for pirates as the years 1660 to 1725. Although the English Crown tried and put pirates to death, other governments often found it profitable to work with pirates. Colonial America and the Caribbean found it more lucrative personally and for their respective territories to work together or condone piracy for a time! Henry Teach is a great example. Famously known as Blackbeard, he played a major role in the politics of North Carolina.

Another example is Captain Tew, a pirate who acquired a Letter of Marque. This letter served as a formal permit for armed vessels to capture an enemy ship without it being illegal pirate activity. Tew obtained this letter by lying that he planned to fight the French. Truthfully, he hunted merchants in the Red Sea. His investors all knew his true intentions, and this included the NY Governor Benjamin Fletcher.

Perhaps it seems surprising that the colonies would allow trade with pirates, nevermind do business with them. However, the US colonies began their uprising against the British during the Pirate Golden Age. The cost of supplies from the mother country was often high, especially for importing currency. Therefore, for both personal and public benefit, pirates had some degree of business in the US.

What Are Some Current Undiscovered Treasures?

Pirate Treasure in the US

The Treasure of Captain Kidd is one treasure that hunters have been searching for 300 years. If it exists, this treasure is most likely buried in New Jersey. Although Kidd first led a massive attack on French ships, his crew mutinied because they wanted more. So, he ruthlessly hunted down anyone in the Atlantic. Eventually, this caught up with him, and the English captured Kidd to try him for piracy. Before he was hanged, he proclaimed he had some buried treasure. The first conquest proved he had treasure. However, his further promises of treasure may have merely been a dilatory tactic. We might never know because the government hanged him before finding all his treasure.

Another pirate treasure possibly in the US is Blackbeard’s Treasure from the Queen Ann’s Revenge. Discovered in 1996, the wreckage of his ship included some of its valuables. But, his treasure is rumored to be somewhere along the coast of North Carolina where he had most of his dealings. Historians refute this claim that he buried his treasure, but hunters nevertheless repudiate them. If his treasure is still hidden, it is most likely in Plum Point, NC or around Blackbeard’s Castle on Saint Thomas, the US Virgin Island. That is if it isn’t in the Caribbean!

Modern US Treasure Hunting

One major US treasure belongs to Forrest Fenn, a man who is still alive today. This treasure consists of a chest he hid himself. Any clues that hint to where the treasure is comes from his nebulous poem. The location is not at all specific as it is in the Rockies somewhere in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, or New Mexico, and not in a mine. Fenn created this treasure hunt consisting of gold coins and hundreds of nuggets in order to share his lifelong hobby of treasure hunting. His hope is to bring together families as they search repeatedly for his treasure.

One more treasure you might find interesting is the Beale Ciphers. But, this is one of the few treasure legends where the word “hoax” actually comes up. The mystery of this treasure is over 150 years old. Specifically, the Beale Ciphers consist of three coded messages from the box of Thomas J Beale. He and some friends moved his treasure from Santa Fe to Bedford Country of Virginia and gave the ciphers to his friend Robert Morriss. Morriss could open it after one decade if he didn’t hear from Beale. As a good friend, he waited two decades before opening the box. However, Beale could only decipher one of the pages through a friend. Thus they discovered the report of a treasure. This treasure was never found, and no one has yet fully deciphered the pages.

Perhaps you are looking for an adventure or wish to get rich quick. Keep in mind that treasure hunting is often not very lucrative, nor is it by any means fast. If it was, more people would be treasure hunting in gold mines and going deep-sea diving. But what about the legalities of finding gold treasure? Can you keep it?

Finder’s Keepers, Can You Legally Keep the Gold You Discover While Treasure Hunting?

Please keep in mind, this is by no means a comprehensive list of all the treasure legends in the US. Keep in mind if you decide to go treasure hunting in the US, you might not always be able to keep the discovery. Laws can vary by state, but it is important to know these four things.

  1. You cannot hunt on public lands that belong to the government. Because of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, any “archaeological resource” discovered on government lands belong to the government. End of story. The government also extended this law to include pretty much anything valuable over one century old.
  2. Some states ruled a treasure trove can be gold, silver, or even paper money. Future legislation may also include other types of coinage or tokens made of different metals.
  3. How old an object has to be to classify as treasure is debated. But, the US court defines treasure as a point after which any original owner might claim the discovery (or at least a few decades).
  4. If your discovery is not considered a treasure, you might be legally obligated to turn it into the police. Then, it is classified as a lost property case.

With this in mind, you should also know that several states respect the idea of “Finder’s Keepers!” These states include Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Oregon, and Wisconsin. As long as you do not need to trespass to find the legally-classified treasure, it is most likely yours to keep. Happy treasure hunting!

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