Photograph by Saddle Ridge Hoard discoverers via Kagin's, Inc., AP

Read Caption

Like this shining example lying tails up, most of the coins in the hoard were $20 gold pieces made in San Francisco.

Photograph by Saddle Ridge Hoard discoverers via Kagin's, Inc., AP

Who Buried the $10 Million in Coins Found by a California Couple—and Why?

What they found, where it's from—and what are the odds?

The dream of discovering buried treasure came true for a California couple who found a real pot of gold while walking their dog. The largest such hoard ever found in the U.S. is comprised of 1,411 gold coins, minted between 1847 and 1894, worth an estimated $10 million in today's market.

The coins are now known as the Saddle Ridge Hoard, after a feature on the couple's property. Both the location of the land and the couple's identity are being kept secret.

According to an interview given to the coin company that will market the hoard, the discovery was made on a path they had used for years. Spotting the side of a rusted can barely emerging from a hillside, they dug it out with a stick and carried it home. Subsequent trips to the site turned up several more treasure-filled cans.

View Images

This corroded can stuffed with coins is one of several filled with loot from the 1800s.

Most of the coins are $20 gold pieces, known as double eagles. All of those were made at the San Francisco mint, founded in 1854 to process the nuggets that prospectors were finding in the newly discovered California gold fields.

But at least one of the coins came from a much earlier bonanza—a $5 piece known as a Dahlonega half eagle.

That's Dahlonega, Georgia.

East Coast Gold Rushes

"Before the California gold rush, there were discoveries [of gold] in North Carolina and Georgia in the early 1800s—not on the same scale, of course, but enough to cause rushes to those places," said Douglas Mudd, the director and curator of the American Numismatic Association's Money Museum, in a phone interview.

"The U.S. government then opened two mints—one in Charlotte and the other in Dahlonega," he explained. Before that time, the mint in Philadelphia was the country's only such facility, established in 1792 when the city was the national capital.

At the start of the U.S. Civil War, the Confederate government took over the mints in North Carolina and Georgia. But by then, the East Coast gold had mostly played out, and the mints closed after the end of the war.

Mint Condition

Aside from sheer quantity, one of the extraordinary features of the Saddle Ridge Hoard is the condition of the coins. "They are in very good shape—they don't show a whole lot of wear," says Mudd. "Some of them probably haven't circulated at all."

About a dozen of the coins, in fact, are among the best surviving examples of their kind.

Condition affects the value of a coin, as does rarity. In 1860, for example, San Francisco produced more gold double eagles than it did in 1866, so coins from the latter year have added value. One of the finest double eagles from the Saddle Ridge Hoard, minted in 1866, has an estimated value of $1 million.

Some of the coins will be on display at the National Money Show opening tomorrow in Atlanta. Exhibitors setting up booths today already had a bit of gold fever.

After that, some pieces will be auctioned; others will be posted on for sale. The California couple hope to use the proceeds to help needy residents of their community.

List of Suspects

Based on the dates of the coins and the cans they were found in, experts believe that the hoard may have been buried over a span of time, but surely not after the early years of the 20th century.

The hoard's face value is $28,000. "That was a lot of money in the late 1800s," says Mudd. "A huge amount."

Who would have left a fortune in the ground and not returned to claim it?

A prospector who wanted to protect his stash? Not likely. "There were still a few people panning for gold in the 1890s," says Mudd, "but by then companies were doing most of the mining."

An outlaw trying to hide the coins while on the lam? Perhaps.

Someone extremely wealthy, eccentric, and distrustful of banks? Another possibility.

A researcher with the time and interest, who knows the location of the find, might uncover an answer. Property records would record the owner of the land in the late 1800s, says Mudd. That might be one clue. And a search through newspapers of the time could turn up a report of money gone missing. There might even have been a local tradition of buried treasure recorded somewhere.

What Are the Odds?

Could another lucky person strike gold like this, somewhere in the U.S., in the future? Not very likely.

"You get a lot of hoards in Europe—coins buried for hundreds or thousands of years," says Mudd, "but they're less common in the U.S. Our history isn't that long, and for most of the time we've had banks, so people have tended to put their money there."

The occasional cache of Spanish pieces of eight comes to light in the Southwest. Or a modest collection of colonial coins is uncovered. Finding "60, 70, 200 coins—yes," says Mudd. "1,400? That's exceptional."

There are exceptions.

In 1985, construction workers in Jackson, Tennessee, unearthed 300 gold coins in almost mint condition. The workers quickly took them to banks for cash, traded them for jewelry, and in one case even exchanged some for a used car. A book called Gold Is the Key, published in 2012, makes the case that the coins are linked to a local bank robbery and murder in 1859.

Most discoveries wouldn't have such a dramatic backstory, and are rare occurrences anyway. Still, people who sweep metal detectors over fields as a hobby, and backyard dog walkers casually kicking up a bit of dirt, can always hope for a lucky strike.