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Finding One-Eyed Willy's treasure: The science behind 'The Goonies'
Down here, it's our time. It's our time down here!
Perhaps no movie from the '80s perfectly marries a sense of danger, nostalgia, and adventure with what it feels like to grow up better than Richard Donner's The Goonies. (Now streaming on Peacock!) The film is based on a screenplay by Chris Columbus and a story by Steven Spielberg — get that band back together! — and it follows a group of friends on their last weekend together before they all lose their homes. Their fight to save their neighborhood and their friendships becomes a fight for survival in the tunnels beneath their town as they seek buried treasure. While some of its mechanics haven't aged well, The Goonies is a Swiss watch of adolescent adventure that has been oft copied but never duplicated.
It's the sort of story you might chalk up to pubescent fantasy except that there actually are lost or hidden treasures in the world — and, sometimes, people really do find them.
HOW MUCH HIDDEN TREASURE IS THERE?
As the movie begins, the Goonies have gathered at the home of Mikey and Brandon “Brand” Walsh, wonderfully portrayed by Sean Astin and Josh Brolin, respectively. The kids are in their atic when they find a gold doubloon and a treasure map leading to the treasure of famed pirate One-Eyed Willy. A treasure like that could set you up for life — it could even same the homes of everyone you care about. If only you could find it.
Following the map, the kids arrive at an abandoned restaurant near the coast where they have an unfortunate run-in with the infamous Fratelli crime family. In their attempt to escape, they slither into a hole in the basement floor leading into a series of tunnels and, ultimately, One-Eyed Willy's lost treasure. The precise value of the bag of gems recovered by the end of the movie is unclear and probably impossible to determine from the information onscreen, but some estimates put it in the millions. That was probably more than enough to save a few houses in the ‘80s, even houses in coastal Oregon, but it's not even a drop in the global treasure bucket.
Getting to a solid value of all lost treasure, much like the value of the fictional jewels in The Goonies, is a challenge but we can back into an estimate. First, we need to account for every lost ship we're aware of and what they were carrying or what they were believed to be carrying. Then it's a simple matter of adding everything up. According to a comment by treasure hunter Sean Fisher, in an interview with Popular Mechanics, there is an estimated $60 billion scattered across the bottom of the world's oceans. Fisher specializes in Spanish shipwrecks, which often carried riches stolen from the Americas.
The trouble is finding them. Roughly three quarters of the planet are covered over in water and they're incredibly difficult to find once they sink into the inky depths. Just consider the fact that it took more than 70 years to find the wreck of the Titanic and we already knew where it went down. Still, there's plenty of riches to be had if you have the gumption, and the luck, to find them.
In 1857, several hundred passengers boarded the SS Central America in Panama on their way to New York. It was the last leg of a journey that began in Gold Rush-era San Francisco, and they were locked and loaded with recently acquired riches. On September 12, the ship encountered a hurricane off the Atlantic coast of South Carolina. Sadly, the ship went down in the storm, carrying 425 crewmembers to a watery grave. They weren't alone, their trip into the abyss was accompanied by literal tons of gold and silver with an estimated value of more than $50 million.
The ship was located more than a century later, in 1988, but the presence of 3,100 gold coins and more than 10,000 silver coins initiated a contest for ownership which kept the wreck in stasis and granted it the nickname “Ship of Gold.” Finally, the rights to the salvage were purchased by Dwight Manley and the treasure was recovered in 2014.
In addition to the gold and silver, the ship carried artifacts like early daguerreotypes, clothing, fine china, and furniture, among other things. Each item was the possession of one of the ship's passengers and each has a rich historical story, most of which we have been able to recover. Those artifacts were recently valued at an auction, which took place on Dec. 3, 2022.
A single pair of pants belonging to one John Dement, a buyer for his family's mercantile shop, became the unexpected star of the auction when they sold for more than any other item. Dement had packed the pants tightly into a trunk along with socks, shirts, and paperback books. Because the trunk was packed so tightly, there was little oxygen inside and its contents were protected even after a century at the bottom of the ocean. Those pants sold for $114,000 to an unknown bidder. In total, the Dec. 3 auction brought in roughly a million dollars for 270 items from the doomed ship. Additional items will go up for sale in future auctions.
Those who finally recovered the wreck and the treasures of the SS Central America may be the Goonies of this story and that means there must be at least one Fratelli. That responsibility probably falls at the feet of Tommy Thompson, the explorer who first found the wreck in 1988. He allegedly took $13 million in investment money to find the ship then took off with millions in gold. After two years as a fugitive, he was arrested and has remained in jail ever since. Thompson has yet to be convicted of stealing the gold but has been held in contempt for refusing to disclose its location. Given enough time, if Thompson's gold is never found, it could spark an entirely new Goonies story. And the cycle continues.
Looking for more treasure-hunting adventures? Follow two brothers as they endeavor to find clues, solve mysteries, and discover riches in The Curse of Oak Island, now streaming on Peacock.