Pirates of the Caribbean

Walt Disney Pictures

As I tend to watch movies for a living, periodically I am faced with potential career choices that might be more lucrative for me. A stint aboard a space mining freighter for the Weyland-Yutani Corporation is a bit too futuristic for me, and I’ve missed the boat for enrolling in med school or law school. However, there seems to be one way to make money that doesn’t seem to take any formal schooling: treasure hunting.

Of course, before I kiss my wife and kids good-bye and embark on a whirlwind global journey to get rich off of other people’s plundering, I had to look into this career choice a bit. I started by thinking: Where can I dig up a buried pirate’s treasure chest?

The Answer: Only in the movies, unless you get creative or have unlimited funds.

Pirate treasure has been the source of many entertaining films, including the Pirates of the Caribbean series, the off-beat Richard Donner classic The Goonies, and the granddaddy of all pirate treasure movies, Disney’s Treasure Island. Beyond the typical pirate treasures, there are other movies telling of such hunts, including the National Treasure series and the big-budget flop Sahara.

However, when it comes strictly to the pirate question of finding a big wooden chest filled with riches – or more ludicrous, One-Eyed Willy’s entire pirate ship hidden in a California cove – that ship has sailed long ago. In fact, it wasn’t even a reality in most cases.

Colorful characters from movies about the golden age of piracy in the early 1700s were in reality more like the modern-day pirates we saw in Captain Phillips. They were not caricatures stumbling around on peg-legs with parrots on their shoulders, yelling “Ahoy, matey!’ and “Arrrgh!” They were just average joes who chose this life because the alternatives or merchant or military service sucked even worse.

More importantly, pirates rarely hoarded their treasure, even if they got their hands on it. Remember how rapper MC Hammer was once worth $33m in the early 1990s but ended up filing for bankruptcy in 1996? Pirates made similar business decisions with any wealth they acquired, often spending their money on women, drinking, and gambling. Again, there’s a reason they became pirates instead of bankers.

Even when pirates did have access to treasure, it wasn’t always gold, silver, and jewelry. Treasure in the 1700s was just as likely to be mundane modern items like sugar, cocoa, cotton, spices, and dyes. In other words, an afternoon trip to World Market could result in a booty that would make most pirates blush.

Pirates generally didn’t bury their treasure, either. The most famous tale of actual buried treasure was by Captain Kidd, a Scottish sailor executed for piracy in 1701. Kidd famously hoarded his loot stolen from various vessels. Upon threat of death by the authorities, Kidd claimed he could lead them to the various places he hid his treasure. (Spoiler alert: they executed him anyway.) Contrary to what some snake-oil salesmen might tell you, Kidd never left a map to his treasure with a giant, stylized X marking the spot where you needed to dig. Pirates generally didn’t write this stuff down.

Well, if it’s not buried, then…

Where did all that treasure go?

Ice Pirates

MGM

It’s not the case that there’s no treasure out there in the world to find. It’s just that pirates didn’t bury it in a treasure chest on a beach with a clearly-marked map. There’s a difference between buried treasure and lost treasure.

There have been significant pirate hoards that have been found, where pirates stored their treasure in remote locations rather than burying it. For example, for centuries, hunters have been searching for the “Lima loot,” a massive hoard of gold, silver, jewelry, and religious and cultural artifacts stolen by Captain William Thompson in 1820, said to be worth in excess of $260m. The treasure was supposedly stored on an island in the Pacific, and is reported to be the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.”

However, even the treasure hoards are rare and often fraught with embellishment and apocryphal storytelling. Another source of treasure could be on the bottom of the seas, however. Over the centuries, there have been many ships that sank with valuables on board. At one time, the infamous Titanic was considered to be a special type of treasure to be hunted. The coal carried in the ship’s hull alone would be worth millions today. However, after the wreck was discovered at the bottom of the Atlantic, a fight emerged, seeking the preservation of the ship as a gravesite.

Other well-known shipwrecks may have plenty of loot in them, but they are often far too expensive to look for (especially if you’re not exactly sure what you’ll find) or too dangerous. For example, the Whydah Gally sunk off the coast of Massachusetts in 1717 with a treasure of 400,000 gold and silver coins. The sunken ship was discovered in 1984, but not all of the treasure was on board. Explorer Barry Clifford supposed the coins fell from the ship as it sunk, leaving what he called a “yellow brick road” of treasure behind it. However, once he spent more than $200,000 on a couple dozen trips to look for it, the profit margin was far less desirable.

Similarly, an estimated $10b of loot from a Spanish colonial shipwreck was found on Crusoe Island in the 2005, but a huge legal battle emerged over the ownership to the wreck and contents. So, even if you find it, you may not even have a right to it. After all, you’ll be dealing with maritime law, international law and the laws of any coastline you encounter.

So, what’s left out there?

All is not lost when it comes to finding treasure. A rank amateur can pick up a metal detector for less than $100, though if you’re really considering this, you might want to get a better device. According to The Guardian, there are 67,000 discoveries each year, and 78% of them come from private metal detectors. However, you should realize that people have been using metal detectors since the 70s to look for buried items, and you’re most likely to find nothing more than spare change.

Some hobbyists have designed their own treasure hunts. Probably the most famous of this type was by author Kit Williams with his 1979 picture book “Masquerade.” Williams buried a solid gold hare in the U.K. and invited readers to unlock the clues of its location by reading the book. However, this story ended in scandal when the winner was found to have a personal connection with Williams and had learned the general location of the hare without solving the 19-word riddle from the book.

Similarly, in 2011, 80-year-old art dealer Forrest Fenn claimed to have buried a treasure worth more than $1m in the Santa Fe area. Although some people claim to have found bits and pieces of the treasure, Fenn contends that the bulk is still out there to find.

Other real-life treasures can be found around the world, like gold in central California (though most of that was sucked up in the Gold Rush of the 1840s and 1850s) and meteorites just about anywhere (though be careful not to end up like that lunkhead Jordy Verrill from Creepshow).

And if you’re still game to brave real-life pirates, bank account drain, international law, and jungle dangers, you can check out a variety of lists on the internet for real-life lost treasures. Just be careful, and be sure to bring your towel.

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