Treasure of Lima

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The Treasure of Lima is a buried treasure reputedly removed from Lima, Peru, in 1820 and never recovered. It is estimated to be worth up to £160 million or $208 million in today's money.[1]


Spain had controlled Lima since the 16th century, when it defeated the Incas. In the centuries that followed, the Catholic Church gathered a huge treasure in Lima. In the early 19th century, Spain began to have difficulties with its colonies due to wars of independence in South America. Lima was no exception, and in 1820 the city came under heavy pressure and finally had to be evacuated. (See also Peruvian War of Independence.)

In 1820, Lima was on the edge of revolt. As a preventative measure, the Viceroy of Lima decided to transport the city's fabulous wealth to Mexico for safekeeping. The treasures included jeweled stones, candlesticks, and two life-size solid gold statues of Mary holding the baby Jesus. In all, the treasure was valued at between $12 million and $60 million.[2]

A Newfoundlander, Captain William Thompson, commander of the Mary Dear, was put in charge of transporting the riches to Mexico.[1] Thompson and his crew proved to be unable to resist the temptation; they turned pirate, cut the throats of the guards and accompanying priests, and threw their bodies overboard.[2][3]

Thompson headed for Cocos Island, off the coast of present-day Costa Rica, where he and his men allegedly buried the treasure.[2][3] They then decided to split up and lay low until the situation had calmed down, at which time they would reconvene to divvy up the spoils.

However, the Mary Dear was captured, and the crew went on trial for piracy. All but Thompson and his first mate were hanged.[2] To save their lives, the two agreed to lead the Spanish to the stolen treasure.[2] They took them as far as the Cocos Islands and then managed to escape into the jungle.[2] Thompson, the first mate, and the treasure were never seen again, though it is believed that Thompson returned to Newfoundland with the aid of a whaling ship.

Treasure hunting[edit]

Since that time, hundreds of treasure hunters have travelled to Cocos Island and tried to find the Treasure of Lima. One of the most notable was the German August Gissler, who lived on the island from 1889 to 1908. Another was the American gangster Bugsy Seigel.None have succeeded in finding the treasure. One theory is that the treasure was not buried on the Cocos Islands at all, but on an unknown island off the coast of Central America. Nevertheless, the legend of the treasure on Cocos Island continues to attract dozens of treasure hunters each year.[1][4]

Treasure of Lima: A Buried Exhibition[edit]

Treasure of Lima: A Buried Exhibition is an art project curated by Nadim Samman for Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Academy and commissioned by Francesca von Habsburg. Works by forty internationally celebrated artists were placed inside an exhibition architecture (i.e. contemporary ‘treasure’ chest) designed by architects Aranda\Lasch and then buried at a secret location on Cocos Island in May 2014. The GPS coordinates (or ‘map’) of the exhibition location were logged at the site of burial. These coordinates were then given to the Dutch artist Constant Dullaart, who worked with a leading cryptographer to encode them. The resulting string of code was then made physical as a 3D printed steel cylinder and placed inside a second version of the chest. This chest and the physical ‘map’ has been sold at auction on November 13, 2014 to raise funds for a shark research and conservation initiative on Cocos Island. The buyer will not receive the de-encryption key.

Treasure of Lima: A Buried Exhibition brought together artists, marine biologists, collectors, and sailors together to engage with conservation issues while exploring the history of piracy on Cocos, the politics of access and exclusion in the fields of art and natural heritage, as well as the limits of the exhibition format.

Burying a contemporary treasure on Cocos Island was more than an incursion within a geographical location. It was an intervention within the narrative and legal construction of a place. Stories relating to historical events on Cocos Island have developed into legend, inspired novels and genre fantasies for more than a century. In the curator's words ‘if as some argue, the Treasure of Lima was never buried on Isla del Coco then perhaps this project can breathe new life into the utopian function of treasure fantasies and secret knowledge. The following questions guide our enterprise: How can a scheme for an exhibition add to this imaginary while interrogating and challenging models of spectatorship, audience, ownership etc.? How can it create its own legend?’

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Jasper Copping (5 August 2012). "British expedition to Pacific 'treasure island' where pirates buried their plunder". The Telegraph. Retrieved August 12, 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Legends and Lore (Part 2)". Retrieved 27 May 2011. 
  3. ^ a b MacInnis, Joe (1975). Underwater Man. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company. p. 28. ISBN 0-396-07142-2. LCCN 75-680. 
  4. ^ "Briton given permission to look for legendary treasure of Lima". The Daily Telegraph. 26 July 2010.