The concept of treasure hunting has long captivated our collective imagination, whether it’s Long John Silver unearthing buried chests, Robert Langdon piecing together Da Vinci’s code or Tintin, the world’s favourite travelling teenager, recovering another priceless antique before hitting puberty. But why should such adventurous quests be limited to the pages of fiction?
Searching for one of these fabled treasures – from a sapphire-laden shipwreck to a gold-encrusted city – might not result in the discovery of a fortune. But exploring the intriguing, lesser-visited landscapes where they reputedly reside makes for its own rich reward.
So, what are you waiting for? Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory.
Flor de la Mar, Straits of Malacca
Undiscovered since: 1511
Estimated worth: £2 billion
Revered as the holy grail of plunderable shipwrecks, the Portuguese Flor de la Mar was returning from a successful siege on the rich Malaysian port of Melaka when it was caught in a storm and sank somewhere off the coast of Sumatra – taking its estimated £2 billion spoils down with it. Several serious expeditions have taken place to find what’s touted as the world’s most valuable sunken treasure, but the wreckage has never been found.
Anyone with hopes of coming into a watery windfall should head to the paradisiacal isle of Pulau Weh at Sumatra’s northern tip, which offers exceptional diving in little-explored turquoise waters patrolled by sharks and rays. While chances of stumbling upon the wreckage are marginal, travellers are guaranteed a glimpse of the famous galleon in the sleepy city of Melaka, where a life-size replica stands in the midst of fantastic food stalls and kitsch antique shops.
Authenticity: The ship was real and first-hand accounts documenting its lucrative cargo exist – though these may be exaggerated. Some of the treasure may also have been looted by sailors fleeing the wreckage or opportunist scavengers in the aftermath of the incident.
Nazi gold train, southern Poland
Undiscovered since: 1945
Estimated worth: 300 tonnes of gold, jewels and artwork
In the Polish city of Wałbrzych, a local legend tells of a hidden WWII-era train laden with stolen loot. It was said that as the Red Army advanced on Wrocław in the latter stages of the war, Nazi generals loaded the country’s most precious spoils onto a train and sent it southwards towards Wałbrzych to be hidden in an underground facility under construction in the Owl Mountains. The story caused a media frenzy in 2014, when two men claimed to have found the fabled wartime treasure. However, their search ultimately proved unsuccessful.
Today the Owl Mountains are criss-crossed with walking trails threading through the dense countryside. Intriguing tours of the man-made tunnels (built by German prisoners of war) are available, along with entry to Książ Castle in Walbrzych itself – potentially envisioned as Hitler’s secret headquarters. Should your subterranean search prove fruitless, a replica of the locomotive is currently under construction, which should at least fool friends into thinking you’ve uncovered its exalted cargo.
Authenticity: Though the Nazis were known to hide stolen artwork in caves and mines for protection from allied bombings – and the underground network is real – no historical documents support the existence of the gold train.
The Fenn treasure, Rocky Mountains
Undiscovered since: 2010
Estimated worth: in excess of £1 million
Inspired by the stories of lionhearted treasure hunters he had read as a boy, art dealer Forrest Fenn reputedly hid a bronze chest containing over £1 million worth of plunder somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. To lead people to the gold, Forrest penned a short poem in a self-published memoir that provided cryptic clues to its location. Since its release in 2010, thousands of people have gone after Fenn’s treasure, but nobody has provided evidence to suggest it has been found.
Aside from generating a sense of whimsy, Fenn concocted his scheme to get people out into the American outdoors, specifically the unblemished wilderness of the Rockies. The long-running hunt has courted some controversy, however, as police concluded two men died in the attempt. As well as taking all the usual precautions before heading into the mountains, would-be treasure hunters should note that Fenn maintains the treasure is located in an accessible, non-perilous location in the hills – after all, he was 80 when he hid it.
Authenticity: Though no one aside from Fenn has seen the treasure, the art dealer insists it is genuine, stating his intention to retrieve it himself if the value rises to $10 million.
Bad King John’s crown jewels, Lincolnshire
Undiscovered since: 1216
Estimated worth: unknown; rumours of up to £50 million
In Lincolnshire, England, locals still recite an age-old tale about Bad King John, who reigned tyrannically over England during the start of the 13th century, losing his crown jewels while crossing The Wash, a marshy wetland that forms one of the UK's largest estuaries. It’s said that while fleeing from his enemies, the King’s convoy was caught in the rising tide and scattered its costly contents – supposedly including one of the King’s crowns – across the English countryside.
The story has prompted hundreds of enthusiasts to scour the vast region with metal detectors in tow, though nothing of historical significance has surfaced. Whether or not the marshy region is home to this illustrious bounty, the region is certainly rich in wildlife, with herds of seals sharing the mudflats with migrating birds like grey plovers and oystercatchers. The nearby market town of King’s Lynn (where the king began his journey) is also a gem, with medieval ruins and atmospheric pubs.
Authenticity: The ancient story has become as muddied as the waters in which it originates; while there are records of the king making the ill-fated journey across the marsh, there is no documentation of what was lost on the journey or what was recovered.
The treasure of the Copper Scroll, the Dead Sea
Undiscovered since: 100AD
Estimated worth: excess of £1 million
Discovered in 1952 in a cave near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, the Copper Scroll is one of the Dead Sea Scrolls – a series of ancient Jewish manuscripts – with some significant distinctions: its age (the scroll is newer than the other documents), the material (it’s made from copper, not parchment) and, most intriguingly, its content. Unlike the other scrolls, which are literary works, the Copper Scroll lists 63 locations at which various items of gold and silver are buried or hidden.
The scroll is currently on display at the Jordan Museum in Amman, where its contents are legible. However, those thinking of heading to the Dead Sea with trowel in hand should note the obscurity of the scroll’s instructions, for example: ‘Sixty five bars of gold lie on the third terrace in the cave of the old washer’s house’. The ambiguity of the archaic descriptions has thus far prevented anyone from retrieving a single coin of the historic treasure.
Authenticity: While some scholars have called the scroll a very early example of a hoax, the majority agree the treasure is real and likely from the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, hidden before it was ransacked by the Romans – though this theory is still debated.
Paititi city of gold, Amazon Rainforest
Undiscovered since: 1600
Estimated worth: £7 billion
El Dorado, the fabled Inca city of gold, has been captivating the imagination of historians and travellers for centuries. While the legend is regularly associated with lavish rituals that took place in Laguna de Guatavita in Colombia, many explorers are convinced the city itself is the Inca forest fortress of Paititi. The city was first documented in a letter penned by an Italian missionary in Peru in the 1600s, who reports being told about an advanced society residing in a large city rich in gold, silver and jewels located in the middle of the tropical jungle; contemporary colonial sources also reference the city.
Travellers looking to don the Indiana Jones fedora and hit the trails should make a beeline for Cuzco, the mystical former capital of the Inca Empire. From here you can organise treks into the Parque Nacional Manu, a well-protected region of pristine rainforest that requires a guide and flexible travel plans to enter. If you don’t stumble upon the mythical metropolis, southern Peru is cluttered with – very real – ancient cities that are equally fascinating, from Machu Picchu to Choquequirao.
Authenticity: Though a city named Paititi may once have existed – and may still exist in the unexplored swathes of the Amazon – it is unlikely to be the gold-encrusted citadel ‘El Dorado’ has grown to represent.
The golden owl, France
Undiscovered since: 1993
Estimated worth: £130,000
Prompting the longest-running contest in the armchair treasure hunt genre (whereby people hide valuable items in public places and publish riddles to lead fellow enthusiasts to it), the golden owl has evaded discovery for over two decades. After allegedly burying a diamond-encrusted owl statuette somewhere in France, Paul Hauser published On The Trail Of The Golden Owl, a 22-page book containing 11 cryptic riddles that, once correctly solved and rearranged, provide the coordinates of the elusive avian treasure.
Though the location of the owl has never been confirmed (Hauser died in 2009, taking the location with him) good places to start searching would be in the maze of medieval streets at the centre of Bourges – reputedly the starting point of the game – or the picturesque village of Roncesvalles near the Spanish border, which many hunters believe to be referenced as the solution to one of the book’s 11 riddles.
Authenticity: The owl statue is real, having been the subject of several court cases disputing its rightful owner after Hauser’s death. In reality, the hidden owl statue is actually made of bronze but can be immediately exchanged for the golden version (held by Hauser’s lawyers) once unearthed.
This article was first published in February 2018 and last updated in February 2020.