how armchair treasure hunting has cost money – and lives Edugic

“People are obsessive, stubborn”- How the treasure hunt in an armchair cost money – and lives

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At 4 a.m., Gregg Donnenfeld is sitting up in bed. In the dark he finds a pen and notepad and writes down the words “Roman numerals in the work of art = figures of Caesar?”. before you go back to bed

Donnenfeld is a lawyer and lives in upstate New York with his wife and daughters. Instead of gold doubloons or octets, he’s chasing a $10,000 (£8,000) stamp, and the treasure map isn’t tattered parchment but a children’s book full of simple, bright illustrations.

Xavier Marx and the Missing Masterpieces by Hilary Genga and Sean Cronin is the latest in a long line of treasure hunt picture books. The eponymous Xavier gets involved in an art theft on a school trip. Visual and verbal cues point to a physical location where a token—whose character and appearance are hidden within the book—can be presented to authors and exchanged for prize money.

Donnenfeld is one of many for whom the search has become an obsession. “I have a separate Word document devoted to each page and image of the book with countless notes. There is a picture that my kids think is a number code. We have 20 pages of work for this alone. We capture every single idea we have in real time. We don’t let the seasons stop us. If we let time pass, someone else can get ahead of us.”

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In the armchair treasure hunt, as such books are called, no type of puzzle is taboo. Clues can take the form of astrological, masonic and runic symbols, anagrams, cryptic crosswords, logic problems, historical facts and folklore. Xavier Marx, Conceived and written in lockdown, it draws on all of that and should bring families together. “Imagination and fascination are positive qualities that we age by as we age,” says Genga. “Kids love to ask, ‘Why?’ about every little thing. It’s a great mindset for treasure hunting.”

The original armchair scavenger hunt is Gloucestershire artist Kit Williams’ 1979 million-selling Masquerade. In it, the moon instructs Jack Hare to deliver a jewel to the sun. Intricate, stunning paintings invite the reader to peer into each page. When Jack Hare loses the jewel, it’s up to readers to find out where Williams hid an actual hand-beaten, jeweled golden rabbit. The book was a phenomenon that so concerned some hunters that it was cited in divorce proceedings. Airlines sold transatlantic masquerade tickets; Passengers received a spade upon arrival in England.

Masquerade by Kit Williams.
Masquerade by Kit Williams.

The solution was esoteric, to say the least. Lines drawn from the figures’ eyes (human or animal) through their hands, feet, hooves, or paws indicated letters that revealed a master riddle- “Catherine’s long finger overshadows the earth-buried yellow amulet Noon points to the hour in Light of the equinox. They .” Arranged in verse, an acrostic reading “near Ampthill”. From this the reader should learn that the treasure was buried in a park in Bedfordshire, in the shadow of Katherine’s Cross. In 1982, two physics teachers solved the mystery, but before they could dig it up, someone connected to Williams made an educated guess and claimed the treasure.This sinister discovery soured the hunt.Genga and Cronin acknowledge Xavier’s guilt to Masquerade and also cite The Secret, a book from in 1982, whose clues were based on North American history.More recently, Joanna May’s The Hare on the Moon and Benjamin Brewis’ The Hidden Sun have been Williams influences.

Perhaps the most infamous iteration happened in 2010, when antiquarian Forrest Fenn buried a treasure trove of rare and valuable artifacts in the Rocky Mountains. He recorded the clues in a map and poem at the end of his memoir, The Thrill of the Chase. It was controversial from the start, when hunters began excavating parts of the national park. At least five men are known to have died while chasing after it, falling into crevasses, losing control of rafts, or simply dying from exposure. At the peak of “Fen fever” 350,000 people are said to be looking for the cache. Fenn’s house has been broken into several times.

Dan Barbarisi, author of Chasing the Thrill, an account of the Fenn treasure hunt, says that the mindset that makes a good treasure hunter can also mean they go too far. “You have to be obsessed and persistent. Price is paramount and the treasure hunt can cost a lot of real money.” Eventual finder, medical student Jack Stuef, has refused to give up the solution, saying the remote location in a national park was “not a suitable place for a tourist destination”. Like Fenn, he strives not to spoil the natural beauty of the landscape. Fenn supports Stuef over a fake and a scam- he’s since gone into hiding.

Erin Kelly's Skeleton Key

Possession and clues, death and mystery- all of this will be added to my new novel, The Skeleton Key. My book-within-a-book is called The Golden Bones- The treasure is a skeleton with jewels scattered and buried in seven places. Unlike Fenn, my fictional artist abandons the quest when mad fans can’t distinguish their fictional quest from reality and threaten his family. One golden bone – the pelvis – remains undiscovered. Today the artist decides to update and re-release The Golden Bones and reveal the whereabouts of the treasure. But instead, human remains are uncovered and dormant obsessions resurface.

I was concerned that a newly published book wouldn’t catch fire in the same way now – remember, when Masquerade was published we only had three TV channels and pubs were closed in the afternoons – but Barbarisi argues that much of the appeal of this one Books constitutes from “The connection to a world is long gone. A treasure map is more romantic and mysterious – and uncertain – than a set of GPS coordinates on a geocaching hunt. These books represent a time when information was really hard to come by. There are those who miss the sense of not knowing, the difficulty of discovery, and the triumph of hard-won knowledge.”

Donnenfeld is not one of them. His smartphone is as important a part of his kit as food and water, with apps replacing compasses, maps and even cipher-deciphering. Does it sometimes feel like cheating? “Apps don’t ‘recognize’ digits,” he says. “It’s up to man to do that. What they can do is decode them. It allows us to manually translate a code in a second instead of hours.” And, he adds, it’s the connection that counts – even more than the prize money itself. “I want to find Xavier Darling, but watching my kids find a hidden clue in artwork or come up with a unique solution – it’s a wonderful experience. It taught them creativity, brainstorming and teamwork.”

The Skeleton Key by Erin Kelly (Hodder) will be released on September 1st. To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping costs may apply.