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6 People Who Accidentally Found a Fortune

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A lucky couple in Northern California found $10 million in rare gold coins buried on their property. If you haven't found a fortune in your backyard, don't give up! This kind of thing happens all the time.

1. Lose a Hammer, Find a Horde

In November 1992, a farmer living near the village of Hoxne in Suffolk, England, lost a hammer in one of his fields, so he asked Eric Lawes to use his metal detector to search for it. While looking for the hammer, Lawes happened upon something else of interest -- 24 bronze coins, 565 gold coins, 14,191 silver coins, plus hundreds of gold and silver spoons, jewelry, and statues, all dating back to the Roman Empire.

As required by British law, the so-called "Hoxne Hoard" was reported to the local authorities, who declared it a "Treasure Trove," meaning it was now legally the property of Britain. However, the government is required to pay fair market value for a treasure trove, meaning the farmer and Lawes split a cool £1.75 million. The Hoxne Hoard is now on permanent display at the British Museum, drawing thousands of people every year.

Sadly, there is no word on whether or not the hammer was ever found.

2. Arkansas is a Girl's Best Friend

W.O. Basham found a giant of a gemstone in 1924 -- a 40.23 carat diamond. It might surprise you to hear that he wasn't digging in one of the famous South African diamond mines at the time, but was near Murfreesboro, Arkansas, at a site that is now the Crater of Diamonds State Park. Sitting on top of a volcanic pipe (a geologic tube formed by an ancient underground volcanic explosion), the park is the only diamond site in the world that is open to the public. Best of all, the park's policy is: "You find it. You keep it. No matter how valuable it is."

Bassum's big find, nicknamed "The Uncle Sam Diamond," was the largest diamond ever discovered in North America. It was later cut down to 12.42 carats and sold for $150,000 in 1971 (about $800,000 today). But his wasn't the last valuable rock dug out of that Arkansas soil.

strawn-wagner_diamondIn 1964, "The Star of Murfreesboro" was discovered at the same site, weighing in at 34.25 carats. Then, in 1975, came the 16.37 carat "Amarillo Starlight Diamond." The 6.35 carat "Roden Diamond" was found in 2006. And the crown jewel of the park has been the "Strawn-Wagner Diamond" (pictured), a comparatively small 3.09 carat diamond that was dug up in 1990 and expertly cut down to 1.90 carats. Despite its smaller size, the Strawn-Wagner stands out because it was given a "Perfect" rating by the American Gem Society, the first diamond to ever receive such a high grade.

But don't think this list of big gems means the site has been tapped out. On average, two diamonds are found every day at Crater of Diamonds. They're not all as big as The Uncle Sam Diamond, but maybe you'll get lucky. There's only one way to find out...

If getting your hands dirty isn't your idea of fun, maybe you should start hitting garage sales and thrift stores to find valuables buried among the castoff bread machines and Members Only jackets. Sometimes, one man's trash really is another man's treasure.

3. The Declaration of (Financial) Independence

declarationWe've all heard of the man who bought a $4 painting at a garage sale, found an original copy of the Declaration of Independence inside, and sold it for $2.4 million. A once-in-a-lifetime story, right? Not so much, actually.

Michael Sparks was visiting a Nashville thrift store, where he bought a candleholder, a set of salt and pepper shakers, and a yellowed print of the Declaration of Independence. Sparks figured the document was a worthless, modern reprint, so he paid the asking price -- $2.48 -- and headed home.

After looking over the document for a few days, he wondered if it might be older than he initially thought. So he hopped on the internet to do some research and soon realized he had purchased one of only 200 official copies of the Declaration of Independence commissioned by John Quincy Adams in 1820. Of those 200, 35 had been found intact; he had number 36.

It took a year for Sparks to have the print authenticated and preserved and then he put it up for auction, netting a final sale price of $477,650.

The salt and pepper shakers, on the other hand, were still worthless.

4. A Good Heade for Bargains

headeOne day, an employee at a tool-and-die company in Indiana spent $30 for a few pieces of used furniture and an old painting of some flowers. When he got his new stuff home, he decided to strategically hang the picture to cover up a hole in the wall that had been bugging him.

Some years later he was playing a board game called Masterpiece in which players attempt to outbid one another for artwork at an auction. Much to his surprise, one of the cards in the game featured a painting of flowers that looked a lot like the one he had on his wall. So he went online and found that his painting was similar in style to the work of Martin Johnson Heade, an American still-life artist best known for landscapes and flower arrangements.

Through his research he found the Kennedy Galleries in Manhattan, which handles many of Heade's works, and asked them to take a look at his painting. They agreed and were able to verify that the piece of artwork covering the hole in his wall was a previously unknown Heade painting, since named Magnolias on Gold Velvet Cloth. In 1999, The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston purchased the painting for $1.25 million dollars.

I emailed the Museum to ask if the painting was covering a hole in the wall, but I didn't get a reply.

5. It's nice, but it's no Middleham Jewel...

hannaby_pendantEvery Sunday afternoon for the last seven years, Mary Hannaby had gone for a walk with her metal detector. She'd never really found anything of value, but she liked getting the exercise, so she kept at it. On one Sunday in June 2009, her detector beeped, and she bent down to dig up what she thought was going to be another common coin or old nail. Instead, she uncovered a postage stamp-sized gold pendant featuring an intricate carving of the crucifixion of Jesus. Maybe she had finally hit the jackpot.

Upon inspection by the British Museum, the pendant was described as "an important find," and they estimated the market value to be around £4,000. Still, they decided not to purchase it for their collection, so Mary took the pendant to Sotheby's. The experts at the auction house felt the piece was much more valuable because it was believed to be one of only three similar items known to exist. Their initial estimate was £250,000, but said it could easily sell for as much as £2.5 million thanks to its resemblance to another English treasure also found with a metal detector, the Middleham Jewel.

But as the saying goes, "Never count your millions until the auctioneer bangs his gavel." Sotheby's put the pendant up for auction on July 9, 2009, making it the highlight of a large lot of antique sculptures. Clearly the expectations were high. The bidding started at £30,000, but as the final call was made, the best offer was only £38,000 -- far below the reserve price to make a sale.

6. A Possible Pollock

pollock

In 1992, Teri Horton, a retired truck driver, went to her local thrift store to buy a depressed friend a gag gift. She found a rather large painting -- 66" x 47" -- that she thought was pretty amusing because it was, in her opinion, so ugly. When she asked the thrift store employee the price, they said $8. She haggled and only paid $5. In the end, her friend didn't want it (she, too, thought it was ugly, plus it wouldn't fit through the door of her trailer), so Teri took it home and tried to unload it at her garage sale. A local art teacher saw the painting and suggested it could very well be a Jackson Pollock. In response, Teri famously asked the teacher, "Who the f*** is Jackson Pollock?"

Since that day, Teri Horton has been struggling to prove that her thrift store treasure is a lost piece of artwork potentially worth well over $100 million. However, due to the painting's lack of verifiable history of ownership (called "provenance"), the piece is disputed by many fine arts experts as simply another artist's work inspired by Pollock. To find proof of Pollock, Teri had the work examined by a forensic specialist who claims to have found a fingerprint that matches one in Pollock's studio. But even the fingerprint evidence has been disputed by the art world, leaving the painting, as yet, unsold.

Teri, her painting, and her battle with the art world elite became the subject of a 2006 documentary called, appropriately, Who the *$&% is Jackson Pollock?

This post originally appeared in 2009.

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15 Things You Might Not Know About Chewbacca
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images

Even if you don't know the name Peter Mayhew, you surely know about Chewbacca—the seven-foot tall Wookiee he has played onscreen for over three decades. In honor of Mayhew’s birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Han Solo's BFF.

1. HE WAS INSPIRED BY GEORGE LUCAS'S DOG.

The character of Chewbacca was inspired by George Lucas’s big, hairy Alaskan malamute, Indiana. According to Lucas, the dog would always sit in the passenger seat of his car like a copilot, and people would confuse the dog for an actual person. And in case you're wondering: yes, that same dog was also the inspiration behind the name of one of Lucas’s other creations, Indiana Jones.

2. HIS NAME IS OF RUSSIAN ORIGIN.

The name “Chewbacca” was derived from the Russian word Sobaka (собака), meaning “dog.” The term “Wookiee” came from voice actor Terry McGovern; when he was doing voiceover tracks for Lucas's directorial debut, THX 1138, McGovern randomly improvised the line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee” during one of the sessions.

3. HE'S REALLY, REALLY OLD.

In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Chewbacca is 200 years old.

4. PETER MAYHEW'S HEIGHT HELPED HIM LAND THE ROLE.

Peter Mayhew
Getty Images

Mayhew was chosen to play everyone’s favorite Wookiee primarily because of his tremendous height: He's 7 feet 3 inches tall.

5. HIS SUIT IS MADE FROM A MIX OF ANIMAL HAIRS, AND EVENTUALLY INCLUDED A COOLING SYSTEM.

For the original trilogy (and the infamous holiday special), the Chewbacca costume was made with a combination of real yak and rabbit hair knitted into a base of mohair. A slightly altered original Chewie costume was used in 1999's The Phantom Menace for the Wookiee senator character Yarua, and a new costume used during Episode III included a specially made water-cooling system so that Mayhew could wear the suit for long periods of time and not be overheated.

6. ONE OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S CLOSEST CREATORS DESIGNED THE COSTUME.

Chewbacca's costume
Getty Images

To create the original costume for Chewbacca, Lucas hired legendary makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn, who was recruited because of his work on the apes in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Freeborn had also previously worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove to effectively disguise Peter Sellers in each of his three roles in that film.) Freeborn would go on to supervise the creation of Yoda in The Empire Strike Back and Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

Lucas originally wanted Freeborn’s costume for Chewie to be a combination of a monkey, a dog, and a cat. According to Freeborn, the biggest problem during production with the costume was with Mayhew’s eyes. The actor’s body heat in the mask caused his face to detach from the costume's eyes and made them look separate from the mask.

7. FINDING CHEWBACCA'S VOICE WAS BEN BURTT'S FIRST ASSIGNMENT.

The first sound effect that director George Lucas hired now-legendary sound designer Ben Burtt for on Star Wars was Chewbacca’s voice (this was all the way back during the script stage). During the year of preliminary sound recording, Burtt principally used the vocalization of a black bear named Tarik from Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California for Chewbacca. He would eventually synchronize those sounds with further walrus, lion, and badger vocalizations for the complete voice. The name of the language Chewbacca speaks came to be known in the Star Wars universe as “Shyriiwook.”

8. ROGER EBERT WAS NOT A FAN.

Roger Ebert was not a fan of the big guy. In his 1997 review of the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Ebert basically called Chewbacca the worst character in the series. “This character was thrown into the first film as window dressing, was never thought through, and as a result has been saddled with one facial expression and one mournful yelp," the famed critic wrote. "Much more could have been done. How can you be a space pilot and not be able to communicate in any meaningful way? Does Han Solo really understand Chewie's monotonous noises? Do they have long chats sometimes? Never mind.”

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY MUCH MORE SCANTILY CLAD.

In the summary for Lucas’s second draft (dated January 28, 1975, when the film was called “Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars”), Chewbacca is described as “an eight-foot tall, savage-looking creature resembling a huge gray bushbaby-monkey with fierce ‘baboon’-like fangs. His large yellow eyes dominate a fur-covered face … [and] over his matted, furry body he wears two chrome bandoliers, a flak jacket painted in a bizarre camouflage pattern, brown cloth shorts, and little else.”

10. HIS DESIGN WAS BASED ON RALPH MCQUARRIE'S CONCEPT ART.

Chewbacca’s character design was based on concept art drawn by Ralph McQuarrie. Lucas had originally given McQuarrie a photo of a lemur for inspiration, and McQuarrie proceeded to draw the character as a female—but Chewbacca was soon changed to a male. McQuarrie based his furry design on an illustration by artist John Schoenherr, which was commissioned for Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin’s short story “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man.” Sharp-eyed Chewbacca fans will recognize that Schoenherr’s drawing even includes what resembles the Wookiee’s signature weapon, the Bowcaster.

11. HE WON A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD.

Fans were angry for decades that Chewie didn’t receive a medal of valor like Luke and Han did at the end of A New Hope, so MTV gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. The medal was given to Mayhew—decked out in full costume—by Princess Leia herself, actress Carrie Fisher. His acceptance speech, made entirely in Wookiee grunts, lasted 16 seconds. When asked why Chewbacca didn’t receive a medal at the end of the first film, Lucas explained, “Medals really don’t mean much to Wookiees. They don’t really put too much credence in them. They have different kinds of ceremonies.”

12. HE HAS A FAMILY BACK HOME.

According to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, Chewbacca had a wife named Mallatobuck, a son named Lumpawaroo (a.k.a. “Lumpy”), and a father named Attichitcuk (aka “Itchy”). In the special, Chewie and Han visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” a celebration of the Wookiee home planet’s diverse ecosystem. The special featured appearances and musical numbers by Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur, and marked the first appearance of Boba Fett. Lucas hated the special so much that he limited its availability following its original airdate on November 17, 1978.

13. MAYHEW'S BIG FEET ARE WHAT KICKSTARTED HIS CAREER.

Mayhew’s path to playing Chewbacca began with a string of lucky breaks—and his big feet. A local London reporter was doing a story on people with big feet and happened to profile Mayhew. A movie producer saw the article and cast him—in an uncredited role—as Minoton the minotaur in the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. One of the makeup men on Sinbad was also working on the Wookiee costume with Stuart Freeborn for Star Wars and suggested to the producers that they screen test Mayhew. The rest is Wookiee history.

14. MAYHEW KEPT HIS DAY JOB WHILE SHOOTING STAR WARS.

Peter Mayhew
Getty Images

During the shooting of Star Wars, Mayhew kept working his day job as a deputy head porter in a London hospital. Though he was let go because of his sudden varying shooting schedule at Elstree Studios, he was eventually hired back after production wrapped.

15. DARTH VADER COULD HAVE BEEN CHEWBACCA.

Darth Vader
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David Prowse, the 6’5” actor who ended up portraying Darth Vader—in costume only—originally turned down the role of Chewbacca.  When given the choice between portraying the two characters, Prowse said, “I turned down the role of Chewbacca at once. I know that people remember villains longer than heroes. At the time I didn’t know I’d be wearing a mask, and throughout production I thought Vader’s voice would be mine.”

Additional Sources: Star Wars DVD special features
The Making of Star Wars: The definitive Story Behind the Original Film, J.W. Rinzler

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
6 Priceless Treasures Lost in Shipwrecks
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In the lore around treasures lost at sea, most of the excitement goes to pirate’s gold and the sunken luxuries of the Titanic. But in the centuries of human seafaring, many lesser-known priceless objects, from literary manuscripts to scientific research, have been claimed by the depths. Here are some tales of those losses, from a lifetime of work by a 19th-century woman who was an expert in cephalopods, to a rare book by Dickens that went down with the Lusitania.

1. LOUIS DE JAUCOURT'S ANATOMICAL LEXICON

Always, always, always back up your work. Of course, that's easier now than it was in the 18th century, when French scholar Louis de Jaucourt dispatched his six-volume Lexicon medicum universale to his Amsterdam publisher, a move intended to evade French censorship. The medical dictionary, on which he'd spent 20 years, was completely lost when the ship it was on sank off Holland's coast. Luckily, Jaucourt rebounded when Denis Diderot asked him to contribute to the Encyclopédie, now considered one of the greatest works of Enlightenment thought, for which he used his notes from the lost manuscript. Jaucourt became the publication's most prolific author, penning 40,000 articles—so many he was nicknamed l'esclave de l’Encyclopédie, or the "slave of the Encyclopedia."

2. THE FIELDWORK OF ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE

Portrait of Alfred Russel Wallace, Welsh naturalist and explorer
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1852, following four years of research in the Amazon, the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was ready to return to England. He loaded his copious notes, animal and plant specimens, and drawings onto the brig Helen. Just 26 days into the voyage, the vessel caught fire. Wallace only had time to hastily fill a tin box with a few drawings of fish and palms and some scientific notes before joining the crew in the lifeboat. After 10 days marooned at sea, they were rescued by the brig Jordeson—but most of Wallace's work was gone forever. As he lamented in an October 19, 1852 letter, "The only things which I saved were my watch, my drawings of fishes, and a portion of my notes and journals. Most of my journals, notes on the habits of animals, and drawings of the transformations of insects, were lost.” While he continued as a leading naturalist—albeit one overshadowed in his evolution research by Charles Darwin—Wallace was never able to reconstruct those years of fieldwork.

3. THE CEPHALOPOD RESEARCH OF JEANNE VILLEPREUX-POWER

Before Jeanne Villepreux-Power’s 19th-century research, most scientists thought the Argonauta argo, or paper nautilus, scavenged its shell from other animals. But by inventing the modern aquarium, Villepreux-Power could study the species first-hand, and witness how it grows and repairs its own shell. The breakthrough was one of many discoveries made by the pioneer in cephalopod research, one of the few women to achieve prominence in Victorian science. She might be better known today if it weren't for the fact that when she and her husband decided to move from Sicily to London, the vessel on which they’d shipped their possessions—including the majority of her drawings, notes, and equipment—foundered off the coast of France in 1843. After the devastating loss, she never published again.

4. A COPY OF A CHRISTMAS CAROL OWNED BY CHARLES DICKENS

Sinking of the Lusitania
Three Lions/Getty Images

When Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat realized the RMS Lusitania was doomed that fateful day in 1915, he dashed to his cabin, using the light from a few matches to try to find the literary treasures he’d brought aboard. These included original drawings by Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray, as well as an edition of A Christmas Carol owned by Charles Dickens himself. The edition was irreplaceable, since it included Dickens’s notes related to his 1844 copyright suit against the illicit republishing of his story. In the book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson vividly describes Lauriat’s harrowing experience when the ocean liner was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland: Lauriat grabbed the leather briefcase containing the Dickens, but left the Thackeray sketches behind. Rushing out to the deck, he saw a lifeboat packed with women and children that was being dragged down by the sinking ship. He jumped in with the briefcase, yet was unable to free the lifeboat, and in the escape into the water he lost the precious cargo. Out in the waves, he managed to evade entanglement with an antenna, swim to a collapsible lifeboat, and survive. One of the few items he managed to save were photographs of his baby, which he told his wife were his "mascot."

5. WRITINGS OF JOSÉ ASUNCIÓN SILVA

Portrait of José Asunción Silva

Many Colombians can recite the first lines from the influential Modernist poet José Asunción Silva's "Nocturne III"—"A night / A night full of hushings, of the curled wool of perfume / And incanting wing"—and it’s even printed in microtext on the 5000 Colombian peso bill. The poem, written in 1892, is believed to be a tribute to Silva’s half-sister. Silva suffered another blow in 1895, when many of his manuscripts, including a draft of a novel, were lost in a shipwreck. He left his diplomatic post in Venezuela, and dedicated all his time to reconstructing the drowned novel. But his melancholy continued: After visiting a doctor to ask the exact position of his heart, he shot himself in 1896. His rewritten novel—After-Dinner Conversation (De sobremesa) —wasn’t published until 1925.

6. THE ART OF GIOVANNI BATTISTA LUSIERI

The South-east Corner of the Parthenon, Athens by Giovanni Battista Lusieri
Giovanni Battista Lusieri, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Giovanni Battista Lusieri was a meticulous painter of the Italian landscape, particularly its classical ruins. In large panoramas and more compact watercolors, he depicted the Acropolis, views of Rome and Naples, and, his favorite, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Some of his most striking works captured the volcano at night, illuminating the darkness with its orange glow. Lord Byron called him "an Italian painter of the first eminence." Yet his name is now obscure. This is partly due to the years he stopped painting to help Lord Elgin remove and ship the Parthenon Marbles to London. But when Lusieri's artwork was being sent home from Greece after his death in 1821, a shipwreck destroyed nearly half of it (including a spectacular 25-foot-long panorama of Athens), helping to ensure his fall from fame.

BONUS: PEKING MAN

A replica of the Peking Man Skull
A replica of the Peking Man Skull

When paleontologists discovered the bones of "Peking man" in a dig near Beijing in the 1920s, they were the oldest hominid fossils ever found. However, scientists can now only study the bones—thought to be about half a million years old—from casts. The Peking Man fossils were last seen in December 1941, but vanished during the Japanese occupation of China while they were being sent to the United States for safekeeping. There are many conjectures on their fate, from being secretly stored away in Japan, to being under a parking lot in China. Yet one enduring theory is that they were lost at sea on the Japanese freighter Awa Maru: In 1945, the ship was torpedoed in the Taiwan Strait by the USS Queenfish despite being guaranteed safe passage by the United States, leading to the loss of more than 2000 lives—and, it's said, the priceless Peking fossils [PDF].

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