Royal Treasures, Lost and Found

From Montezuma’s gold to the crown jewels of Scotland, some of the world’s most famous valuables have gone missing.

January 23, 2020

The Wall Street Journal

What sort of nitwit goes off in a snowstorm to feed leftovers to the chickens while still wearing her Christmas Day finery? In my defense, I was just trying to share the love. Alas, I ended up sharing an antique ring along with the Brussels sprouts. Only the chickens know where it is, and they aren’t talking.

The Honours of Scotland were recovered in 1818 after being lost for decades. PHOTO: ALAMY

One doesn’t need to read J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” to be reminded that lost treasures are often the result of epic folly. In October 1216, King John of England lost the crown jewels while leading a campaign against rebellious barons. Against all advice, John—who is chiefly remembered for being forced to sign the Magna Carta, one of the cornerstones of civil liberty—took a shortcut via the Wash, a tidal estuary on England’s east coast. He got across the causeway just in time to see the waters come rushing up behind him. The wagon train with all his supplies and baggage—including, crucially, the king’s treasury—sank without a trace. The incident has given countless British schoolchildren the joy of being able to say, “Bad King John lost his crown in the wash.”

Folly also played a starring role in the disappearance of the treasure of the Aztec Emperor Montezuma II. In 1520, the inhabitants of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan rose up against the occupying Spanish forces led by Hernán Cortés. By July 1, the situation was so critical that the outnumbered conquistadors attempted a midnight escape from the city. Hampered by their haul of plunder, however, the Spanish were too slow in crossing Lake Texcoco. Unable to run or fight, desperation overcame their greed and the conquistadors tossed the treasures into the water. Despite losing half his men on what he called “La Noche Triste,” the Night of Sorrows, Cortes captured the Aztec capital a year later. But he never found the lost gold.

It was a case of absent-mindedness that led to the disappearance of the Scottish royal sword, scepter and crown, known collectively as the Honours of Scotland. Having been successfully hidden during the Interregnum, England’s brief experiment with republicanism in 1649-60, the Honours were returned to Edinburgh Castle for safekeeping. Too safe, it turned out: No one could remember where they were. But the story has a happy ending. In 1818, the Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott received permission to conduct his own search of the castle. He found the Honours in a locked storeroom, inside a trunk packed with linens.

Occasionally, royal treasures have been lost on purpose. One of the last rulers to be buried with his jewels was Emperor Tu Duc of Vietnam (1829-83). To outwit potential grave robbers, he left orders that he should not be buried in his elaborate official tomb but in a secret location; to ensure it stayed secret, the laborers who interred him were executed. In 1913, Georges Mahé, the French colonial administrator of the Vietnamese city of Hue, provoked a national outcry after he dug up Tu Duc’s official tomb in the hope of finding the hidden jewels. The French swiftly apologized and Mahé was sacked.

Tu Duc’s treasure remains lost, but it may not stay that way forever. Earlier this month, scientists in Mexico City confirmed that a gold bar found on a construction site is one of the ingots discarded by Cortés and his fleeing conquistadors almost exactly 500 years ago.

 

Historically Speaking: Unenforceable Laws Against Pleasure

The 100th anniversary of Prohibition is a reminder of how hard it is to regulate consumption and display

The Wall Street Journal, January 24, 2019

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

This month we mark the centennial of the ratification of the Constitution’s 18th Amendment, better known as Prohibition. But the temperance movement was active for over a half-century before winning its great prize. As the novelist Anthony Trollope discovered to his regret while touring North America in 1861-2, Maine had been dry for a decade. The convivial Englishman condemned the ban: “This law, like all sumptuary laws, must fail,” he wrote.

Sumptuary laws had largely fallen into disuse by the 19th century, but they were once a near-universal tool, used in the East and West alike to control economies and preserve social hierarchies. A sumptuary law is a rule that regulates consumption in its broadest sense, from what a person may eat and drink to what they may own, wear or display. The oldest known example, the Locrian Law Code devised by the seventh century B.C. Greek law giver Zaleucus, banned all citizens of Locri (except prostitutes) from ostentatious displays of gold jewelry.

Sumptuary laws were often political weapons disguised as moral pieties, aimed at less powerful groups, particularly women. In 215 B.C., at the height of the Second Punic War, the Roman Senate passed the Lex Oppia, which (among other restrictions) banned women from owning more than a half ounce of gold. Ostensibly a wartime austerity measure, 20 years later the law appeared so ridiculous as to be unenforceable. But during debate on its repeal in 195 B.C., Cato the Elder, its strongest defender, inadvertently revealed the Lex Oppia’s true purpose: “What [these women] want is complete freedom…. Once they have achieved equality, they will be your masters.”

Cato’s message about preserving social hierarchy echoed down the centuries. As trade and economic stability returned to Europe during the High Middle Ages (1000-1300), so did the use of sumptuary laws to keep the new merchant elites in their place. By the 16th century, sumptuary laws in Europe had extended from clothing to almost every aspect of daily life. The more they were circumvented, the more specific such laws became. An edict issued by King Henry VIII of England in 1517, for example, dictated the maximum number of dishes allowed at a meal: nine for a cardinal, seven for the aristocracy and three for the gentry.

The rise of modern capitalism ultimately made sumptuary laws obsolete. Trade turned once-scarce luxuries into mass commodities that simply couldn’t be controlled. Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” (1776) confirmed what had been obvious for over a century: Consumption and liberty go hand in hand. “It is the highest impertinence,” he wrote, “to pretend to watch over the economy of private people…either by sumptuary laws, or by prohibiting the importation of foreign luxuries.”

Smith’s pragmatic view was echoed by President William Howard Taft. He opposed Prohibition on the grounds that it was coercive rather than consensual, arguing that “experience has shown that a law of this kind, sumptuary in its character, can only be properly enforced in districts in which a majority of the people favor the law.” Mass immigration in early 20th-century America had changed many cities into ethnic melting-pots. Taft recognized Prohibition as an attempt by nativists to impose cultural uniformity on immigrant communities whose attitudes toward alcohol were more permissive. But his warning was ignored, and the disastrous course of Prohibition was set.