When the term "treasure-hunting" comes to mind, most people immediately develop a somewhat fantastical The Goonies mentality, picturing pirates, legends, and treasure maps. Then, they probably become disappointed, because those things aren't real-at least, not wherever they live. But this is New Orleans, and not only do we have amazing music, festivals, food, and fun, we also have had our fair share of pirates, legends, and treasure maps. It's no secret that Jean Lafitte and his band of thieves made quite a name for themselves here, but what you probably didn't know is that treasure-hunting is still alive and well in New Orleans, in one form or another.
Here are some of the best ways to find a big piece of treasure in the Big Easy:
Geocache Your Way Around Town
Geocaching, if the name doesn't give it away, is basically the art of hiding goods somewhere on Earth. Typically, a "cache" refers to items hidden out of reach, usually in some inaccessible place. Geocaching is a little bit different because these locations must be publicly accessible, but they are just out of plain sight. The level of difficulty of the hunt is up to the person who hides the treasure, and items can be placed at the base of street lamps in suburban areas, for example, on neutral grounds near bushes or flowers, or even in trees within local parks. Geocaching can be done by everyone and was providing ample exercise to tech-savvy kids well before Pokémon Go.
Puzzles, by nature, must be marked with GPS coordinates, but some very clever puzzles may contain clues that people have to look up or solve to be able to narrow down the location or to find the numbers that will eventually spell out the final latitude and longitude coordinates. A clue might be something as cryptic as "a tree near the river in Audubon Park." Prizes can range from large collections of things to small tokens, but they are often important to the person who placed them-usually known as the "hider." "Finders" or "seekers" take the item and are asked to write their information in a log book, including whether they are FTF (first to find), the time/date of their find, and any other comments or pertinent information. They are also encouraged to leave another item in trade, for either the hider or another seeker to discover.
To Play: Visit online forums at Geocaching.com, Navicache.com, TerraCaching.com, or GPSGames.org to start. A variety of other websites can be found with a simple Google search. Use your phone at first, and if you enjoy it, you may want to invest in a better GPS locator.
Study Pictures and Poems and Find "The Secret"
In 1982, an author named Byron Preiss was inspired by a book that was published in the late 1970s in England. That author had buried a golden bejeweled bunny pendant, and thousands of copies of his book were sold (and even more holes were dug). It created a craze that Preiss wanted to be a part of, so he wrote a dozen poems, commissioned an artist to draw unique pictures to go along with each one, and assembled them all into his book, called The Secret. The theory was that anyone clever enough could figure out which poem paired with each painting and use the clues combined in both to find the treasure. A total of 12 ceramic casques were hidden, each containing a key, and if each key was turned in, a treasure would be presented, valued at roughly $1,000.
The problem came soon thereafter. Preiss may have buried the keys a little too well, because only two were found in the first 20 years. One was discovered by some children playing in Chicago in 1984, and the second was found in Cleveland in 2004 by a team of lawyers seeking the casque. The plot thickened when Preiss was killed in a car accident in 2005, and it became known that he had never told anyone where any of the casques were hidden. Because they are ceramic, metal detectors can't locate them, and because they have been buried for close to 40 years now, many of the landmarks may have already been dug up, constructed upon, or changed via natural disaster.
Geoffrey Gauchet, who moderates the The Secret New Orleans-specific Facebook group, says that the group is now at just under 400 members strong.
Although it's pretty common knowledge that there is one casque hidden in New Orleans, that's basically the only thing that anyone agrees on. There is one picture that most think represents the city because of a "Preservation" marking seen alongside what appears to be a Mardi Gras mask, among other things. A moon is thought to be indicative of our former mayor, or perhaps of the Moon Walk. A lot of people say the clock at the Hotel Monteleone is a dead ringer for the one in the picture, according to Gauchet. The picture is clear, but the poems lead to even more debate and speculation. There are two poems that many can't fit with a picture, and they're unsure what part of town they portray. One will lead you Downtown and the other Uptown, depending on which you choose and how you interpret it. Gauchet says that he has spent a handful of hours looking in places like City Park, Jackson Square, and around the "jewel streets" in Lakeview, but mostly just to disprove the theories of others that he thought weren't accurate.
There may not even be a treasure anymore, as it's unclear whether the key opens a safety deposit box or, more than likely, just leads to bragging rights. Either way, it's a fun little adventure in our fair city. If The Secret isn't for you, there have been other treasure-hunting books on the market, like A Treasure's Trove.
To Play: Purchase the book The Secret at your local bookstore (it runs about $26) or head to the internet to read a variety of articles and theories written about it. You can also join the Facebook group at The Secret: A Treasure Hunt (NOLA).
Get that 24-Karat Magic!
We don't have much prospecting in Louisiana, and the gold we do have that occurs naturally within the state is in northern Louisiana and is more like dust than nuggets. But we do have plenty of opportunities for metal-detecting in our city. New Orleans and the surrounding region have plenty of available opportunities, including City Park and Audubon Park, and the areas near the lake and river, including near many of the River Road plantations on the Westbank. It's important to note that most other parks besides City Park and Audubon Park are off-limits for metal-detecting. If you have a question about a specific park, you can call the New Orleans Parks & Parkways department at (504) 658-3200 or each park directly. In many cases, you're allowed to hunt as long as any treasure is turned over to the city or agency. In that case, it really is just for the thrill of the hunt.
However, there are plenty of other spots you can find. People have reported finding watches, earrings, bracelets, a variety of old coins, and even some war memorabilia.
To Play: Find available tips and popular maps at TreasureNet.com.
Scream "Throw Me Something, Mista!"
Mardi Gras Collecting: Anyone who's ever been to a Mardi Gras parade knows the joy of catching an awesome throw, but Mardi Gras collectors are another breed of New Orleans treasure-hunter who take parading to a whole new level. Jay Occhipinti is a local doubloon collector and member of the Crescent City Doubloon Traders Club, whose members are affectionately called "Doubloonie Loonies" by his wife, Vicki. These "Doubloonie Loonies" go out to parades, rain or shine, and meet to strategize and compare each year's collection, as well as to trade the pieces they may have multiples of with other members. Occhipinti says it's not uncommon for him to go to five or six parades in one day and that he tries to make it out to see all of the krewes that have doubloons or unique throws.
Doubloons are, of course, one of the most sought-after finds, because they are archivable, have different colors and compositions, and date back to the start of Carnival. Add in the fact that most parades have different coins for each officer and sometimes even for each float, and it becomes a scavenger hunt to find every single one. Themed items for a particular krewe can also be sought after, and it's a fun game to try to collect the entire set issued by one krewe.
As for coins with monetary value, there are some out there that can be worth thousands, including a .999 fine silver from the Krewe of Rex dating back to 1960, only about 30 of which were made. Older coins tend to be worth more than newer ones because of the higher production value, more solid materials, and lack of availability. Doubloons used to be made in West Germany, out of precious metals, with runs in the tens and hundreds, and now are made in China out of cheaper products, thousands of units at a time. Regardless, whether a doubloon has a run of 30 or 30,000, it's still a joy for collectors to find them all!
Of course, there are also the handmade throws, such as the Zulu coconut, Muses shoe, Cleopatra cup, and Nyx purse. They may not be worth as much as an almost pure-silver doubloon, but they sure do look just as beautiful on a mantle. And often, it's not just about having one, but the art of acquiring one is what's really special.
To Play: Plan out your itinerary for Mardi Gras next year, and when the time comes, just start going to parades! It's always helpful if you bring a sign indicating exactly what you'd like to catch.
Use Social Media to #NOLATreasureHunt
Speaking of handmade items, there's a relatively new treasure-hunting game that you may not have heard of and that's extremely active on Instagram. It all started when the candle shop Flambeauxs began hiding some of their creations around the city, available to whomever got there first. Brother O'Mara was a fan and had just started sculpting as a new hobby. He started making skulls and loved it so much that he quickly ran out of friends and family to gift them to. "I thought, I don't want to stop making them, but I can't just have a house full of them, so I decided to give them away." He recalled what Flambeauxs was doing and started hiding his skulls in the same fashion, while also posting on Instagram under the handle @brotheromara. Soon other hiders followed suit, like @saygoodbyerose and @marco_say_polo, and the #NOLATreasureHunt hashtag was developed to give seekers an easy way to find new hiders, and vice versa.
The "prizes" are almost as different as each artist who creates them. In addition to Brother O'Mara's skulls, there are hearts, clay dolls, painted tiles, and other items bedazzled with paint, glitter, feathers, and love-in true New Orleans fashion. Searching the hashtag will give you a variety of things to find all over the New Orleans area.
To Play: Log in to Instagram and search the #NOLATreasureHunt hashtag. Be sure to read comments and descriptions to see when a piece has been found so you don't waste any time, and make sure to let other players (and the hider) know when you've found the item as well!
Again, it's important to note that no one is allowed to dig on public or private property without the proper permission. I say this to you because the one place in the city where you can't really hunt for buried treasure is in Central Lockup. Follow the rules, and you'll be golden. Happy Hunting!
For more information on treasure-hunting and the treasure-hunting movement that continues to take New Orleans by storm, stay tuned for Part 2, which will provide more information about the NOLA Treasure Hunt and locally hidden handmade items.
Rebecca Fox is a Metairie native and enjoys glitter, the color mint green, courtroom TV shows, game shows (of which she has competed on a few), and everything about New Orleans. She can be reached at RebeccaFox@gmail.com.