How to Be a Modern Day Treasure Hunter

Geoff Williams
October 11, 2013

Sean Carney went searching for buried treasure earlier this year. It did not go well.

Carney, a 31-year-old public relations executive in Philadelphia, was inspired to treasure hunt after he saw a piece on "The Today Show" about Forrest Fenn, a millionaire art collector and Santa Fe, N.M., gallery owner. A few years ago, Fenn hid a lockbox filled with gold nuggets, rare coins, jewelry and gemstones, all said to be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million. In his memoir "The Thrill of the Chase," Fenn says the treasure is hidden in the Rocky Mountains north of Santa Fe and 5,000 feet above sea level. In the book, he offers cryptic clues as to where it might be.

Carney, an admirer of history's greatest explorers, was mesmerized by the idea of finding Fenn's stash. "The great part about treasure hunting is that it reopens the possibility of actually discovering something. I mean, really discovering it; not being led there with tourists from Wisconsin," Carney says.

So Carney flew to Santa Fe in mid-April, then drove to a spot three hours away and began treasure hunting. His search didn't last long. He met an elderly couple who warned him that they had seen bear cubs further along the trail. He dismissed the warning, and about 15 minutes later, heard growling, presumably from the mother.

Carney hid and hyperventilated until he knew the coast was clear. As he later wrote on his blog, The Witty Gritty: "The bear had gone off, or simply died from laughter." He decided to conclude his treasure searching. He sprinted back down the trail and toward his rental car.

Buried and hidden treasure may be the stuff of legend and film, but treasure hunters exist - both professionals and hobbyists - and sometimes they do actually find something. In September, a Florida family working for the company 1715 Fleet - Queens Jewels, LLC made news when they uncovered a chest of gold estimated to be worth $300,000. Later in the month, off the coast of the Dominican Republic, divers from the Florida-based company Anchor Research & Salvage located a 450-year-old ship with Spanish silver coins and gold, among other things.

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So if you're thinking of taking up treasure hunting as a pastime or a way to make a living, here's what you need to know.

Equipment. Bring some along, especially if you're searching for treasure in a remote area. "That's kind of why it was disastrous," Carney says of his misadventure. "I didn't take anything. I brought along a backpack with some water bottles and Clif Bars."

As a tribute to Hollywood's most famous archaeologist, Carney also brought along a fedora and wore sneakers. "I looked like Indiana Jones at his kid's soccer practice," he says.

Carney would have better off with a metal detector, shovel, some extra clothes, rain gear and plenty more. He did bring along his cell phone, but it didn't have reception. "So its only functional purpose would've been to throw at an animal," Carney says.

Laws. If you do your research and think you have a lead on where treasure is hidden, or you're going out with a metal detector to see what you can find, understand that there may be laws governing what you find, depending where you live, and the laws are changing all the time. For instance, in St. Augustine, Fla., the nation's oldest permanently occupied European settlement and thus a treasure trove of possible treasure, an ordinance was passed last year stating that metal detectors can't be used on public property without the city manager or town archaeologist first granting permission. In Oregon, it's illegal to intentionally dig up anything older than 75 years without first getting a permit from the state, even if it's on your own property.

The laws aren't meant to antagonize the average metal detector user or treasure hunter. "Ideally, they protect historic sites from looting and damage by unscrupulous pirates, and they protect the information," says Carol Tedesco, a Key West, Fla.-based shipwreck explorer who specializes in the curation of coins recovered from shipwrecks.

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Although the laws are put in place for a reason, that doesn't mean they shouldn't occasionally be tweaked, according to James Sinclair, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based archaeologist who consults with the private sector when there's a desire to salvage a historic shipwreck. He was also the first archaeologist to visit the RMS Titanic, where he spent two weeks on a diving expedition in 2000, uncovering treasures from the debris field.

"The term 'treasure hunter' has become a pejorative term that goes along with the current label of tomb and grave robbers, and I don't think that's the case anymore, at least in the world I deal with," Sinclair says.

Naturally, he takes the view that treasures shouldn't only be searched for by academics and should be an endeavor of cooperation between the private and public sector. "It's a fundamental human trait, the search for lost things," Sinclair says.

Expenses. This is not a cheap hobby, occupation or calling, which is one reason Sinclair feels that looking for treasure almost has to be an alignment of private and public forces working together.

"Academics rarely have the access to the funding you need to search for a shipwreck. It's also rare with the federal government," Sinclair says, noting that the Florida family that found $300,000 in treasure off the coast of Florida had been searching for it for 16 years. "If you were in an academic setting, and you used up your grant money after two years, I doubt funding would have been renewed again."

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"It is a high-risk business," Tedesco says. "It is more for gambler-type temperaments than those who are hardwired for security."

Carney can attest that treasure hunting isn't cheap. By the time he returned to Philadelphia, he calculated that in his quest to find $2 million, he had spent about $1,300 - on airfare, a rental car, a hotel and some other odds and ends. If he had bought a metal detector, he could have easily spent another $200 to $300 on a good one. From there, the expenses just go up. The 2000 Titanic expedition, Sinclair says, cost $5 million.

Whatever you do, if you're going to look for treasure, whether buried by pirates or underwater elements or hidden by a multimillionaire, "do your homework," Carney advises. "Those adventure movies? They're two hours long because that's how long movies are, not because that's how long it takes to find a treasure."

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