Last year, a couple walking the usual route around their California Gold Country property happened upon a can sticking out of the ground. They pulled it out and uncovered seven others, all filled with hundreds of U.S. gold coins.
Experts announced the find last month after a year of work researching and authenticating the 1,427 coins, worth an estimated $10 million.
But the origin of the Saddle Ridge hoard remains a tantalizing mystery, one that has coin buffs and amateur sleuths on the case. Though such discoveries are not unheard of in Europe, buried caches in the United States are less common and often go unreported.
"But 1,400 coins, all gold? That's spectacular," said Douglas Mudd, museum curator for the American Numismatic Association.
At one of the association's national coin conventions last month in Georgia, a sampling of the collection on display was the topic of conversation among collectors. All kinds of romantic notions come attached to this type of buried treasure, "the escaping outlaw, the eccentric miner or millionaire that decided to save their money that way," Mudd said.
In the days after the discovery was announced, many coin buffs believed the fortune was tied to a theft more than a century ago.
In 1901, $30,000 in $20 coins was discovered missing from the San Francisco Mint. The coins were never recovered, and Chief Clerk Walter Dimmick served time in San Quentin prison for the theft.
The coins discovered by the anonymous couple, dated between 1847 and 1894, mostly consist of $20 pieces and have a face value of nearly $28,000.
The timing, the value — it all seemed right.
But the U.S. Mint last week quashed the theory. Officials found no link between the Saddle Ridge treasure and any U.S. Mint thefts, spokesman Adam Stump said.
Experts from Kagin's Inc., which evaluated the hoard and is representing the couple, said the theory had problems from the start.
Each bag in Dimmick's cache would have contained pieces with the same date and mint mark, but the treasure discovered last year contains a mix of coins with 72 distinct date and mint mark combinations, said David McCarthy, senior numismatist for Kagin's.
Another theory suggests the coins date back to the secretive, subversive Confederate group the Knights of the Golden Circle, believed to have buried and protected treasure stashes across a dozen states.
Though they could very well be the buried fortune of a businessman, the time period, markers near the cache and manner in which the coins were buried fit the mold of the knights, said Warren Getler, a former Wall Street Journal reporter. He co-wrote Rebel Gold, which argues the group was active for many decades after the Civil War.
Some hopefuls have come forward claiming the coins belong to relatives who once owned land in gold country.
"They're all over, stashes that turn up, but nobody says a word," said Mead Kibbey, a historian who has lived in the Sacramento area all his life. "The thing is, in any well-appointed home in the mountains, there's a metal detector. Right next to the umbrella and the shotgun behind the door, they've got a metal detector."
Experts at Kagin's did extensive research to determine whether the coins were ill-gotten. Despite hearing from quite a few people, the firm has not received any credible claims to the coins and does not expect to, McCarthy said.
The most plausible explanation, he said, is that the stash was buried over many years by someone hoping to keep their fortune safe in a secluded area.
The couple said they walked the route for years before uncovering the cans. They were so shocked by what they found that they took the coins, placed them in an old ice chest and reburied them in their wood pile.
Thirteen of the pieces are the finest of their kind. One rare coin, an 1866 $20 piece made in San Francisco and missing "In God We Trust," could bring $1 million on its own, according to David Hall, co-founder of Professional Coin Grading Services, who recently authenticated them.
The coins will be sold on Amazon.com as early as May, McCarthy said.
But for all the excitement over the discovery and its origin, some historians are disappointed about the secrecy surrounding the find. Experts said that Americans who discover treasure are generally wary of announcing their finds and that can result in a loss of valuable history.
Historians have plotted such discoveries in other countries and established patterns that unlock bits of the past, said Ute Wartenberg Kagan, executive director of American Numismatic Society. After the Roman Empire collapsed, for example, the poor buried their coins because they were being attacked by invaders, as evidenced by dozens of coin deposits found in certain areas.
"For American coins, people are so secretive," she said. "It's a loss of American history."