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6 People Who Accidentally Found a Fortune

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CNN

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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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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5 Things You Didn't Know About Sally Ride
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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are five things you might not know about the astronaut, who passed away five years ago today—on July 23, 2012—at the age of 61.

1. SHE PROVED THERE IS SUCH THING AS A STUPID QUESTION.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. SHE MIGHT HAVE BEEN A TENNIS PRO.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. HOME ECONOMICS WAS NOT HER BEST SUBJECT.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. SHE HAD A STRONG TIE TO THE CHALLENGER.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. SHE DIDN'T SELL OUT.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

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5 Surprising Facts About the Battle of Dunkirk
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With the release of Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed Dunkirk, the world’s attention is once again focused on the historic events recounted in the film, when a makeshift fleet of British fishing boats, pleasure yachts, and cargo ships helped save 185,000 British soldiers and 130,000 French soldiers from death or capture by German invaders during the Fall of France in May and June 1940. Here are five surprising facts about those heroic days.

1. THE GERMAN ATTACK WAS SUPPOSED TO BE IMPOSSIBLE.

By Weper Hermann, 13 German Mobile Assault Unit - Imperial War Museums, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The main reason France collapsed so quickly in 1940 was the element of surprise enjoyed by its German attackers, thanks to General Erich von Manstein, who proposed an invasion route that was widely believed to be impossible. In Manstein’s plan, the main German column of tanks and motorized infantry would force their way through the forests of Ardennes in southeast Belgium and Luxembourg—a thick, hilly woodland which was supposed to be difficult terrain for tanks, requiring at least five days to cross, according to conventional wisdom based on the experience of the First World War. The French and British assumed that little had changed since the previous conflict, but thanks to field studies and updated maps, Manstein and his colleague General Heinz Guderian realized that a new network of narrow, paved roads would allow just enough room for tanks and trucks to squeeze through. As a result the Germans passed through Ardennes into northern France in just two-and-a-half days, threatening to cut off hundreds of thousands of Allied troops, with only one escape route: the sea.

2. ONE FRENCH WORD WAS BURNED INTO WINSTON CHURCHILL’S MEMORY: “AUCUNE.”

Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The German invasion of France began on May 10, 1940, the same day Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. By May 14, when he paid his first official visit to Britain’s ally, Holland had capitulated and Paris was preparing for evacuation. But an even worse surprise was in store. In one of the most famous passages of military history, Churchill recounted the moment he learned that the French didn’t have any troops in reserve:

"I then asked ‘Where is the strategic reserve?’ and, breaking into French … ‘Ou est la mass de manoeuvre?’ General Gamelin turned to me and, with a shake of the head and a shrug, replied. ‘Aucune.’ [There is none] … I was dumbfounded. What were we to think of the Great French Army and its highest chief? It had never occurred to me than any commanders … would have left themselves unprovided with a mass of manoeuvre … This was one of the greatest surprises I have had in my life.”

3. HITLER MADE A FATAL MISTAKE.

On May 24, 1940, the Allied troops on the French and Belgian coast had been totally surrounded by powerful German tank columns, rendering them essentially defenseless against the impending German onslaught. And then came a brief reprieve, as the attackers suddenly stopped for 48 hours, allowing the British to dig in and create a defensive perimeter, setting the stage for the evacuation.

For reasons that still aren’t clear, Hitler—over the protests of his own generals and to the bafflement of historians—had ordered Guderian to halt for two days to rest and resupply. It’s true the German troops were worn out after two weeks of fighting, and Hitler may have worried about a repeat of 1914, when exhausted German troops were forced to withdraw at the Marne. He may also have been swayed by Hermann Göring, chief of the German Luftwaffe, who boasted that air power alone could destroy the helpless Allied forces at Dunkirk. Less likely is the speculation that Hitler purposefully “let the Allies go” to appear magnanimous or merciful as a prelude to peace negotiations (which was not really in keeping with his character). In the end we will probably never know why Hitler choked.

4. GERMAN DIVE-BOMBERS WERE EQUIPPED WITH SIRENS TO SPREAD TERROR.

Among many examples of Germany’s evil genius for psychological warfare, one of the most famous was the decision to equip its Ju 87 dive bombers with air-powered sirens that emitted a shrieking, unearthly wail as the plane went into attack. The siren, known as the “Jericho Trumpet,” was intended to spread terror among enemy troops and civilians on the ground—and it worked. To this day the Jericho Trumpet is one of the most recognizable, and terrifying, sounds of war. It was certainly one of the lasting impressions of the Dunkirk evacuation for ordinary troops caught beneath the German bombs. Lieutenant Elliman, a British gunner who was waiting to be evacuated on Malo-les-Bains beach, later recalled the Stukas “diving, zooming, screeching, and wheeling over our heads like a flock of huge infernal seagulls.”

5. THE FRENCH FOUGHT A HOPELESS BATTLE TO COVER THE EVACUATION.

By Saidman (Mr), War Office official photographer — Photograph H 1636 from the Imperial War Museums, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Although Churchill and other Brits were quick to criticize the failure of France’s generals during the Fall of France, many ordinary French soldiers and officers fought bravely and honorably—and one hopeless “last stand” in particular probably helped enable the successful evacuation of Dunkirk.

As British and French troops withdrew to Dunkirk, 40 miles to the southeast French troops in two corps of the French First Army staged a ferocious defense against seven German divisions from May 28 to May 31, 1940, refusing to surrender and mounting several attempts to break out despite being heavily outnumbered (110,000 to 40,000). The valiant French effort, led by General Jean-Baptiste Molinié, helped tie up three German tank divisions under Erwin Rommel, enabling the British Expeditionary Force and the remaining troops of the French First Army to retreat and dig in at Dunkirk, ultimately saving another 100,000 Allied troops.

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