10 Epic Real-life Treasure Hunts

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus
A treasure chest filled with treasure in the middle of a desert
The quest to find riches through treasure hunts is always so thrilling. dblight / Getty Images

In 2010, art dealer Forrest Fenn told the world that he'd buried a bronze chest filled with about $2 million in coins, jewelry and artifacts somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. He left a cryptic note with hints regarding its locale. It took a decade, and hundreds of thousands of seekers, before 32-year-old Jack Stuef found it in 2020. Stuef sold the treasure to Tesouro Sagrado Holdings, LLC, which subsequently put most of the items up for auction. Fenn died three months after the treasure was found.

Although Fenn's treasure is no longer hidden, there are many other treasure hunts still going on. Plenty of valuables — gold, silver, jewels — have been buried over the centuries and are just waiting to be uncovered. Other valuable caches were lost at sea or stolen. The existence of some riches seems to be closer to rumor. Some people create complex clues and ciphers to help others find the loot — or befuddle them some more.


Intrigued? Here are 10 prized stashes that have yet to be discovered.

10. Butch Cassidy's Hidden Treasure

There are not many outlaws more notorious than Butch Cassidy, who was the Pinkerton detective agency. The famous duo fled to Argentina and then Bolivia, where they were killed in a shootout in 1908, although some believe that Cassidy survived. It is thought that before fleeing the country, Cassidy buried his loot somewhere in Irish Canyon, in northwestern Colorado. This is apparently a remote valley where Cassidy and the Wild Bunch would hide when the law was hot on their tail, and the stash is believed to be $20,000. To date, nobody has ever found the money.


9. Oak Island Money Pit

oak island
It's believed that pirate Capt. Kidd buried treasure on Oak Island, an island just off the coast of Nova Scotia. Adwo/Shutterstock

Oak Island is a small landmass just off the coast of Nova Scotia that's famed around the globe as the site of unknown hidden treasures. The story of the buried goods goes back to 1795, when teenager Daniel McGinnis noticed a small indentation in the ground. The trees surrounding it had been removed. Believing something intriguing, or even valuable, must be buried here, McGinnis got two buddies and they all began to dig. The trio uncovered a 90-foot (27.4-meter) shaft with wooden platforms every 10 feet (3 meters).

Over the next 200-plus years, various treasure-hunters attempted to excavate the shaft, finding intriguing items such as coconut fibers (which are not native to Canada), coins dating to the 16th century and a dark stone with indecipherable inscriptions. Often, the pit would fill with seawater and hamper their efforts. Perhaps an intentional booby trap? In the 1960s, yet another expedition resulted in seawater, clay and mud collapsing multiple digs around the shaft, which then obscured its location.


Today, people are still trying to find the shaft and the supposed treasures hidden at its bottom, which some treasure hunters say could be connected to Captain Kidd, a 17th-century Scottish pirate.

8. John Dillinger's Hidden Money

John Dillinger was a famous Midwestern gangster who robbed banks and twice escaped from jail during the Depression era. In July 1934, after a little more than a year on the lam, he was shot and killed by policemen. There are several rumors about Dillinger burying cash as he ran around the Midwest wreaking havoc. One claims that Dillinger buried $200,000 in a suitcase near one of his hideouts in northwestern Wisconsin. Here, staying at a resort called Little Bohemia, Dillinger and his gang were tipped off about a pending FBI raid and fled just as the agents arrived. It's said Dillinger planned to return for the money, but was killed before he could. Another rumor says he buried money on a farm in northwestern Ohio; treasure hunters have been trying to find the stash for well over 75 years.


7. The Amber Room

Amber Room
The interior of the Amber Room (St.Petersburg, Russia) was recreated in 2003. Milosz Maslanka/Shutterstock

Considered a candidate for Eighth Wonder of the World, the Peter the Great admired the stunning room during a visit. This prompted the contemporary Prussian king, Frederick William I, to gift it to him in 1716 to celebrate the bond between the two countries. Unfortunately, the beautiful room was not to last. During World War II the Nazis looted the room, eventually removing even its panels and toting them away. No one knows if the room survived, or if its pieces were lost during the war's frequent bombings. Some theorize it lies at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. In 2003, after 25 years of work, a recreated Amber Room debuted in Russia.


6. The Treasure of San Miguel

After Spain's War of Succession (1701-1714), the country was in desperate need of cash. So, in 1715, the country filled 12 ships with riches from the New World to help fill its coffers: silver, gold, pearls, jewels and other treasures. The plan was for the ships to sail from Havana, Cuba, just before hurricane season was due, hoping that would deter pirates and privateers from trying to steal their cache. Not such a great idea as it turned out, as just a week after leaving Cuba a storm hit, destroying the fleet. One thousand sailors and enslaved people perished, and the ships and all its precious contents sank to the depths of the ocean. To date, seven of the ships have been found, and the Spanish recovered about half of the treasure. But the San Miguel ship is still missing, which intrigues fortune-seekers. The fastest ship in the fleet, it would have been loaded with the most treasure as its speed would have made it the most likely to reach Spain. Some value the ship and its treasures at more than $2 billion.


5. Lake Toplitz Nazi Treasure

Lake Toplitz
At least five divers have lost their lives trying to uncover the supposed treasure in Lake Toplitz, Austria. schusterbauer.com/Getty Images

Lake Toplitz sits in a dense mountain forest in the Austrian Alps. The Nazis used the lake as a naval testing station in the 1940s, and towards the end of World War II began sinking containers and other items into the lake. Many people believe the Nazis dumped billions of dollars in gold in the lake, too. But to date, no major valuables have been found. That's probably not a surprise, as the lake is 300 feet (91.4 meters) deep with a layer of logs halfway down. At least five divers have lost their lives trying to uncover the supposed treasure. After the war (in 1959) investigators found counterfeit notes totaling £700 million ($860 million), which the Nazis planned to use to sabotage Great Britain's economy.


4. The Beale Ciphers

In 1817, Virginian Thomas Jefferson Beale and 29 others headed west on a cross-country trip. After arriving in New Mexico, they supposedly discovered gold and silver, which they decided to mine. After 18 months of work, the crew sent Beale home to Virginia to bury the treasure so that their families could enjoy the fortune for generations. Beale did so while the men continued to work the mine. Another 18 months later, Beale again returned home to hide more gold and silver, plus some jewels. This time, he was also instructed to find a trustworthy person who would distribute the fortune to their relatives in case they all perished. Beale selected hotelier Robert Morriss of the Washington Hotel in Lynchburg.

Beale created three ciphers: one describing the location of the treasure, one describing its contents, and the final cipher listing the men's names and next of kin. He placed these in a box and gave the box to Morriss, who was supposed to wait 10 years. If Beale had not returned by then, a key to the ciphers would be mailed to Morriss. Beale never returned, nor did a key arrive. As Morriss neared death, he told a friend about the ciphers, who spread the word via a pamphlet. The friend decoded one cipher but not the other two, despite spending years trying to do so. Professional and amateur cryptanalysts also tried to solve the ciphers to no avail. No treasure has ever been found, and some speculate it's all an elaborate hoax.


3. La Chouette d'Or

In 1993, Régis Hauser, aka Max Valentin, buried a bronze owl statue in the French countryside. He then penned the book "Sur La Trace de La Chouette d'Or" ("The Hunt for the Golden Owl"), which contains 11 clues to its whereabouts, accompanied by illustrations from owl sculptor Michel Becker. Whoever found the owl would win an identical sculpture, but this one would be crafted from gold, silver, rubies and diamonds and was valued at 1 million francs (about $2,000 today). The owl has never been found, and may now forever be a mystery, with Valentin passing away in 2009. A publishing company is now running the hunt. This is one of the longest unresolved treasure hunts that someone intentionally created for fun.


2. The Lost Fortune at Key West

gold chalice
The President of Guernsey's, Arlan Ettinger, holds a 17th-century Spanish gold chalice, at Guernsey's in New York on Aug. 5, 2015. On July 20, 1985, American treasure hunter Mel Fisher discovered some of the treasure of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha. Some items were auctioned off. DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images

In 1622, the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha (Our Lady of Atocha) was heading home from Havana, Cuba, when it was caught in a hurricane off the coast of Key West, Florida. The ship was carrying gold, silver and other riches from South America. The ship and its precious cargo remained hidden for centuries, until treasure hunter Mel Fisher found the ship's front portion in 1985. It contained some $400 million in treasures, including gold, silver and emeralds. But the ship's rear is still lost and may contain tens of thousands of gems, plus silver and gold coins. Fisher died in 1998. In 2014, Guinness World Records named Nuestra Señora de Atocha the most valuable shipwreck to be recovered. And people are still searching for the rest of its treasure. In 2021, a diver with Mel Fisher's Treasures found one gold coin at the site, which is estimated to be worth as much as $98,000.


1. The Treasure of Lima

After defeating the Incas in the 16th century, Spain took control over Lima, in what is now Peru, and began gathering up all of the Incas' riches. During the next few centuries, the Spanish government accumulated a hundreds of gold statues, 200 chests of jewels and 1,000 diamonds, plus other riches. In 1820, the Spanish decided to move this treasure, including precious items from local churches, due to a pending revolution. The plan was to place everything aboard the ship Mary Dear, captained by the respected William Thompson. Thompson would sail around the area, or perhaps to Mexico, until the political situation was resolved, then bring the treasures back. But that's not what happened.

Swayed by the riches (estimated at $300 million in today's dollars), Thompson and his crew killed Spain's appointed guards and headed for Cocos Island, near Costa Rica, where they allegedly buried it all. The plan was to come back later and divvy up the spoils, but the men were subsequently captured by the Spanish and killed with the exception of Thompson and his first mate. The two were spared because they agreed to show the Spanish where the treasure was buried. Upon arrival at Cocos Island, however, the two managed to escape into the jungle and were never seen again. Although people as varied as President Franklin Roosevelt, Sir Malcolm Campbell and Errol Flynn have tried to find the stash, the treasure remains hidden to this day.