Traditional treasure-hunting is a huge hassle — you have to buy an ancient map in a scary curio shop, hire a ship captain with a hidden agenda, bribe officials in exotic nations, and who knows what else. I’d rather stay home, personally. Luckily, there are a host of treasures, both large and small, you can find while sitting on your couch. The 11 armchair treasure hunts offer rewards ranging from golden owls to the fun of writing your name in a notebook, and all you have to do for that sweet treasure is buy a book, play a video game, or watch a YouTube video — oh, and solve a series of phenomenally complex puzzles that have stumped thousands of people.
Published in 1979, Kit William’s The Masquerade kicked off the pre-internet-age armchair treasure hunting craze of the 1980s. The book gave a series of complex clues in an elaborate painting that pointed to the location of a golden hare statue that was buried somewhere in the UK. It was an instant craze, with hundreds of thousands of copies sold, and treasure hunters digging holes all over the UK, even though a correct solution sent through the mail was good enough to claim the prize.
In 1982, after receiving thousands of incorrect responses, a man calling himself “Ken Thomas” mailed Williams a sketch that pointed to the location of the buried treasure. Williams talked to Thomas on the phone, and although he suspected it was a lucky guess, the treasure hunter had guessed right, so Williams said, “Go dig it up.” Thomas did. Mystery solved, right?
Nope. In 1988, The Sunday Times revealed the “Thomas” was actually named Dugald Thompson, and while he did find the calf, he hadn’t solved the puzzle at all. Thompson’s business partner John Guard gleaned the general location of the prize through a personal relationship with author Williams’ ex-girlfriend. Then Thompson and Guard began sweeping the area with metal detectors in the dead of night. They weren’t able to find the calf that way, but they later seem to have chanced on a couple of school teachers who had solved the puzzle. Thompson and Guard allegedly found the golden hare in the dirt piles left behind by the teachers who actually found the treasure. It was a mess, but the not-solvers prevailed and took possession of the golden hare, which they auctioned off in 1988.
Treasure status: Found
The Masquerade may have kicked off a treasure hunting craze, but it wasn’t the first book with a prize. First published in 1934, Cain’s Jawbone is a murder mystery novel in which all 100 pages are printed out-of-order. To solve the puzzle, you must put the pages in the right order, and then name the murderers and victims in the story. After its original printing, only two readers were able to submit the correct answer to the publisher, and they each received a prize of £25 each.
A new edition of Cain’s Jawbone was published in 2019 with a prize of £1,000 offered to the first person to send in the correct answer. In 2020, comedian and crossword compiler John Finnemore did it. He said it was mostly due to the extra time he had on his hands during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Then the book went viral on TikTok, and a new prize was offered by publisher Unbound books. If you send in the correct response by December 31, 2022, you’ll receive £250 credit from the publishing company, but more importantly, you’ll be only the fifth person who has ever solved the nearly century old mystery.
Treasure status: Available
The GoldFosh Treasure Hunt
Enough of these historical treasure hunts — do you want to solve a puzzle to win a diamond encrusted golden goldfish worth around $US100 ($139),000 ($138,820) right now? All you need to do it watch the video above from YouTuber Max Fosh. It’s less than five minutes long, and everything you need to win the prize is right there.
According to Fosh, “The hunt has been created so that even a six-year-old could win,” and you’re smarter than a six-year-old, right? The video has been been viewed nearly a million times since it was released in August, as of this posting, no one has claimed the prize. The real challenge of this puzzle, if you ask me, is that Max Fosh is so annoying that it’s difficult to watch him sing the clue-song once, let alone the number of times you’d need to to arrive at a solution. I’m not sure it’s worth $US100k.
Treasure status: Available
Written by Byron Preiss and published in 1982, The Secret contains clues that point to the location of 12 treasure boxes that were buried across the United States and Canada. Each box can be exchanged for a precious gem. To date, only three of the boxes have been found, one as recently as 2019.
Just to add difficulty to the treasure hunt, author Preiss is now deceased and reportedly kept no record of the location of the boxes. His estate has promised to honour the contest, but they have no more idea than anyone else where the boxes are, so they could easily have been buried under concrete or otherwise destroyed in the ensuing years. On the plus side: You don’t have to buy a book anymore to dig into The Secret’s clues — the full book is available online for free.
Note: Do not buy inexplicably popular new age tome The Secret by Rhona Barnes expecting to find a treasure map. That book only contains “the knowledge of how to create — intentionally and effortlessly — a joyful life.” Boo.
Treasure status: Partially available
David Blaine’s Mysterious Stranger
Apparently unsatisfied with annoying people in real life and on television, in 2002, “street magician” David Blaine started annoying readers by publishing Mysterious Stranger, a memoir that contained clues pointing to a treasure worth a cool $US100 ($139),000 ($138,820).
The treasure was found in 2004 by Sherri Skanes, a retired school teacher in Ventura, CA, and her son. Unlike many treasure hunts, it actually went off cleanly with no lawsuits or hurt feelings, so chalk one up to David Blaine.
Treasure status: Found
On the Trail of the Golden Owl
This French treasure-hunting book contains clues that point to a statuette of an owl that is buried somewhere in mainland France and is worth something like $US200,000 ($277,640). Author Max Valentin thought that his treasure would be found within a few months of the publication of On the Trail of the Golden Owl in 1993, but nearly 30 years later, it’s still undiscovered, despite thousands of searchers digging holes all over France and poring over every clue contained in the book. Valentin even posted tens of thousands of messages on France’s pre-internet Minitel service that are like the gospel to the army of French chouetteurs (owl-hunters) still searching for the prize. Being able to speak French would probably help you in this quest, so fire up Duolingo.
Treasure status: Available
In 1982, with literary treasure hunting books flying off shelves, Atari entered the game with an elaborate contest that could be solved by piecing together the clues included in Swordquest, a series of Atari 2600 video games.
The games were called Earthworld, Fireworld, Waterworld, and Skyworld, and solving the puzzle at the centre of each would get you a prize and a chance to compete for the grand prize, The Sword of Ultimate Sorcery, a golden, bejeweled sword valued at around $US50,000 ($69,410). Each of the first round prizes — a talisman, a goblet, a crown, and a stone made by The Franklin Mint — were valued at $US25,000 ($34,705) in early ‘80s money.
Things went fine with the first two games. Atari received eight correct entries for the Earthworld contest, and the Talisman of Penultimate Truth was awarded to Stephen Bell. There were over 700 correct entries for Fireworld’s prize, and the Chalice of Light was awarded to Michael Rideout. But things went south from there.
The entire video game industry crashed in 1983, and Atari pulled the plug on the game series (truth be told, they were crappy games). But because the contest for Waterworld had already been advertised, Atari was obligated to give away the prize, so they offered the game to members of their mail order fan club only. According to Atari, either the Waterworld crown or its cash value was awarded to an unknown contest winner.
The final game in the series, Airworld, was not completed or released, and its grand prize, that amazing Franklin Mint sword, was never awarded. No one can say for sure what happened to the sword — some say it was kept by Atari’s president, Jack Tramiel, while others speculate that it was returned to Franklin Mint and melted down. But it could still be out there! (It isn’t, but it could be, dammit.)
Treasure status: Probably unfindable. (But you never know.)
Forest Fenn’s treasure
Unlike these other treasure hunts, the Fenn Treasure wasn’t a stab at selling a book or video game — it was an honest-to-god treasure hunt. Antiquities dealer and adventurer Forrest Fenn buried a treasure worth nearly $US2 ($3) million in the United States and sprinkled his 2010 autobiography with clues to its location. To prove it wasn’t a scheme, Fenn says he donated all profit from the book to charity.
The revelation that there was over a million dollars just waiting for someone set off a treasure-hunting cataclysm that resulted in five deaths (from falling off cliffs, exposure, and drowning) and even more arrests, mainly for digging in places where you’re not allowed to dig, but also for breaking into Fenn’s house. There was speculation that the entire thing was a hoax, calls from authorities to shut down the contest so that no one else would die, and I’m sure thousands of people calling Fenn and begging for a hint. But the treasure was located in 2020. According to Fenn, the finder, medical student Jack Stuef, located the treasure in the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming by decoding a poem in his autobiography.
Treasure status: Found
The Beacon Star
Published in 2017 by Randy Pischel, The Beacon Star offers a prize of $US5,000 ($6,941) to the first person who can solve the puzzle it contains. No one has claimed it yet, but a lot of the work has been done for you. Online treasure hunters have posted the solution to parts of the Beacon Star’s puzzle online, so you’ll have a place to start and an idea of exactly how complex the book’s puzzles are. Spoiler: They are very complex. Like, the “I’m not going to do this” kind of complex.
Treasure status: Available
This is a mysterious one. Cicada 3301 is the name given to a set of puzzles posted on 4chan between 2012 and 2017. Called “the most elaborate and mysterious puzzle of the internet age,” no one knows who posted Cicada 3301 or why. The original post only said that they were looking to recruit “highly intelligent individuals,” but didn’t say what they were being recruited for.
I can’t overemphasize how elaborate the Cicada 3301 puzzle are. Clues lead to phone numbers, and map coordinates that point to posters all over the world bearing QR codes that lead to further puzzles. There were books printed with disappearing ink, floppy discs with single-use data on them, trips to the dark web, clues embedded in the sound waves of mp3 file, and more. The puzzles focused heavily on cryptography and coding, but also required in-depth knowledge of literature and art, leading to rumours that the CIA, the Masons, or James Bond-style super villains were looking for new members. A more realistic possibility is that Cicada 3301 is not the work of any larger organisation, but was made by a collection of hackers who are looking for new pals.
Plenty of people say they solved the puzzle, but it’s impossible to tell if they’re bullshitting. But either way, no information as to who is behind the puzzle has been revealed. The last post was in 2017, but the faithful are waiting for the next round.
Treasure status: Unknown
I’m not smart, obsessive, or tenacious enough to find any of the treasures in this list, and if you’re a lazy, dumb person like me who still wants to find hidden treasure, perhaps geocaching is for you. The hobby began in 2000, when internet denizens began hiding things and giving out the GPS coordinates online. Interested people can plug some numbers into their phone, travel to the location, and find a treasure! Although, this is one of those “the real treasure was the friends we made along the way” kind of deals: Most geocaches consist of a waterproof container holding a logbook, and, if you’re lucky, a pen to sign it with, or a small trinket. If that sounds like fun to you (and it actually does sound like fun to me), you can go to geocaching.com and sign up for a free account and get searching right now.
Treasure status: Plentiful