Treasure is a wonderful word. It conjures up images of jewels and gold and coin of the realm. It adorns classic novels like Treasure Island and classic movies like Treasure of the Sierra Madre. And if we add a second word to create the evocative phrase “treasure hunt,” then heroes, heroines, and the Walter Mitty’s among us just might throw ourselves into an adventure.
And with reason. Our atavistic selves are drawn to hunts; our higher functioning brains like challenges, especially if a secret is involved. In fact, for some folks, the payoff to finding lost treasure can be greater than the riches involved – besides the loot, they win the psychological prize of doing something no one else has ever done.
I love this stuff. I write spy thrillers, which means I also write about geopolitics, culture, romance, secrets, and, whenever I can, missing treasures. Here are five of my favorites lost treasures:
The Amber Room
It was said that when the afternoon light shone through the tall windows of the Amber Room, the walls shimmered and glowed as if alive. The reason? A fortune in amber mosaics and carved amber figurines blanketed every square inch, while gold-encrusted mirrors reflected the lush beauty back upon itself. Created in the early 1700s in Prussia, the Amber Room grew politically important in 1716 when Prussian King Frederick William I gave it to Peter the Great of Russia to memorialize their alliance against Sweden. Some 200 years later, the room became prize World War II plunder, stolen by the Germans and shipped off to Königsberg Castle. It was at the war’s end that it disappeared. Some believe the room was destroyed when the Allies bombed the castle, while others think it was dismantled and hidden in a salt mine or cave, where appropriate humidity and temperature would preserve it. Today the Amber Room remains one of the world’s most significant and stunning vanished treasures.
The Treasure on the Mary Dear
In 1820, Lima, Peru, was a rich city boasting treasures valued at some $60 million, including a life-size gold statue of Mary holding baby Jesus. But the city was near revolt. The Spanish viceroy hired William Thompson, captain of the merchantman Mary Dear, to transport the city's wealth to Mexico for safekeeping. Instead, once at sea, Thompson ordered the viceroy’s guards killed and thrown overboard. Sailing on to the Cocos Islands, the crew anchored and buried the treasure. Not long afterward, the Mary Dear was captured, and the crew was convicted of piracy. All but Thompson and his first mate were hanged. To save their lives, the two promised to reveal where the treasure was buried and led their captors back to the island. But once in the jungle, they escaped. Since then, more than 300 expeditions have tried to locate the lost treasure of the Mary Dear, but to no avail.
Ivan the Terrible’s Library of Gold
Known for his horrific temper and paranoia, Ivan the Terrible of Russia had another side: He built the eternal St. Basil’s Cathedral, introduced the printing press, and kept artists, craftsmen, and poets on staff. He allegedly also inherited from his grandmother Sophia some 800 illuminated manuscripts covered with gold and gems. Sophia was an heir to the last Byzantine emperor, and her priceless collection was all that remained of the legendary Constantinople Library, saved before the Turks routed the city. Over the years, Ivan invited luminaries from Europe to view it, and they returned home to spread word of its magnificence. But when Ivan died in 1584, the library disappeared. Although there has been debate whether the library ever existed, historians and notables have searched for it for centuries. Among those were Peter the Great, Napoleon, Vatican emissaries, and even Vladimir Putin.
The Secret Grave of Genghis Khan
When the fabled warrior died in 1227, his body was returned to Mongolia, probably close to his birthplace near the Onon River. According to legend, the funeral escort killed anyone who saw the body being transported, and when the tomb was finished, the slaves who built it were murdered, too. Nothing was left to mark the grave, even though Genghis Khan had founded the Mongol Empire and conquered most of Eurasia. For centuries he’s been eulogized in myth, poetry, and song, and the hunt for his tomb has long attracted those fascinated by his remarkable life and accomplishments. One was Maury Kravitz, the famous Wall Street commodities trader, who financed and led four excursions into Mongolia. Still, the Great Khan’s final resting place is likely never to be found. If legend is to be believed, the soldiers who had murdered everyone who might know about the tomb also killed one another, the last man taking his own life.
Saddam Hussein’s Missing Billions
Few people know that Saddam Hussein’s first job in politics was as an assassin for Iraq’s Baath Party. He was only 20 years old but soon was known as a shaqawah, a man to be feared. By the time he was 42 years old, he was president. He quickly nationalized the banks and oil companies and began skimming profits. His wealth grew more from bribes and kickbacks on contracts to build superhighways, hospitals, schools, hotels, shopping malls, and office complexes. At the time of his execution, his fortune was estimated to be between $40 and $70 billion, but the United States and its allies have been able to recover only a few billion. Sources believe the money is hidden in dummy corporations in Switzerland, Japan, and Germany, and as cash and diamonds in numbered bank accounts in Europe and the Middle East. The search for Saddam’s vanished billions is considered by some to be the greatest treasure hunt since the post–World War II pursuit of Nazi gold.
And there you have my choices of favorite lost treasures. Through them we see peace and war, adventurers and rulers, the meaning of relentless power, times of wealth, and times of deprivation. The treasures may be missing, but their stories remain with us, and all are rich in culture and history.
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Gayle Lynds is the bestselling, award-winning author of ten international espionage novels, including The Book of Spies, The Last Spymaster, andMasquerade. Library Journal calls her “the reigning queen of espionage fiction.” She is a member of the Association for Former Intelligence Officers and cofounder (with David Morrell) of ITW (International Thriller Writers).