Our heroes have found a golden helmet, a powerful relic, or magic sword, something of great value, they take it to get appraised only to discover that its actually... junk.
A hapless man finds a briefcase, locked, in the back of his car. Perhaps it is full of money, secret documents or contraband. When he opens it he discovers... it's full of shredded paper.
An object of absolutely no significance that the protagonist mistakes, either through misunderstanding or excited imagining, as something of great importance, be it a magic sword or mysterious briefcase. Its importance to the overall plot is usually negligible, though an entire side plot can crop up because of it. All it turns out to be is completely worthless, and not plot-relevant like a real MacGuffin would be.
Compare with It's All Junk, Worthless Yellow Rocks. Not to be confused with All That Glitters or It's the Journey That Counts, which are often materially worthless but at least impart a valuable lesson. See A MacGuffin Full of Money for a plot device that can end in this.
Its opposite is Grail in the Garbage, where a seemingly worthless object is in fact worth a king's ransom.
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One of the recurring gags in Knights of the Dinner Table is the players mistaking some piece of random dungeon dressing for a powerful magical artifact. The longest running of these jokes was Dave's 'magical' cow Chelsie.
And thanks to their Bag of Holding having a nigh unlimited capacity, they would clean out everything in a dungeon including toe nail clippings.
One Calvin and Hobbes arc had Calvin trying to find dinosaur bones in his yard. He ended up digging up a bunch of random trash, but until his mother pointed it out, he had no idea that there was something fishy about the "Calvinosaur" having a bottle for a skull, tin cans for a spine, and forks for arms.
X-Men Noir: Mark of Cain, reimagines the titular mutant superheroes as a gang of hired mercs looking for the fabled gem of Cytorrak in the jungles of Madripoor. It eventually turns out to be a worthless fake made of glass. However, the Big Bad actually knew this all along. He was planning to use the fake gem to wrest control of Madripoor from the natives so that he could use it as a prison for creating brainwashed agents to beat the Soviets. It Makes Sense in Context.
One arc of Hitman has Tommy and Natt getting involved in a bloody dispute over a recently found coffin full of cash from the Civil War. In the end, all involve find out that it was full of Confederate dollars, worthless and largely ruined by the years.
In Lockout the sought after briefcase turns out to be empty and the actual information is hidden in the lighter that Snow had the entire time.
A couple of these in The Big Lebowski — Walter's briefcase full of dirty undies, Lebowski's briefcase full of phonebooks — both attempts to swindle someone else out of A MacGuffin Full of Money they're expecting.
Burn After Reading is a rare case of of a plot that does center around this: Brad Pitt's character mistakes a CD of a low-level CIA analyst's mundane and unclassified memoirs for something top-secret. The analyst is also convinced that it's a vitally important, but only because he's delusional enough to think it has the makings of a "Washington tell-all bestseller." In other words, a Mock Guffin becomes a MacGuffin through collective delusion.
In Dartagnans Daughter, much of the plot is driven by characters misinterpreting a laundry list and a really bad love poem as secret coded messages, and acting upon what they think these 'messages' are telling them to do.
How To Steal A Million is about a woman hiring an art thief (he isn't) to steal a statuette worth a million dollars (it isn't) from a Parisian gallery. She knows it's a fake, but wants to have it stolen so her art forger father won't be exposed, and the "thief" knows it's a fake because he's really an expert on art forgery investigating her father, but happens to have fallen in love with her.
In Flushed Away, both Rita and Toad fight for possession of what they think is a priceless gem. Roddy recognizes it as a cheap glass bead and proves it by smashing it to bits, which doesn't sit well with Rita.
The Maltese Falcon is something of a subversion, as the fake one in the movie was substituted by the legitimate owner to prevent theft of the real one. At least, that's what Gutman thinks, but really there's no evidence either way. Maybe the legitimate owner always had a fake. Maybe there never was a real one. (Apparently, no-one has ever tried to scratch off the black enamel to see if it's really gold underneath before.)
In what's perhaps a subversion of the subversion a sequel "The Black Bird" has Sam Spade Jr. (George Segal) getting involved with a new group of motley villains looking for the statue that his father kept all these years. Turns out the "lead" was a coating over the real golden bird.
In part of National Treasure, Ben Gates buys two copies of the Declaration of Independence at the gift shop(one of them is the real thing that the clerk believes to be a replica, the other a replica). They both become useful; when Ian and his cronies are trying to steal the real one from Gates, he throws them the fake to buy some time.
Raiders of the Lost Ark first plays with this trope and then subverts it in the last scene. After performing the invocation ritual, Belloq opens the Ark and finds it to be just a box full of sand. Toht walks away laughing... and then God's fury comes out of it unleashed.
In Duplicity, the formula for a baldness cure that Claire and Ray are trying to steal (ostensibly for their boss, but really for themselves) turns out to just be a formula for an ordinary skin cream...excuse me, lotion.
The Radix: Edgar Wurm made a fake Radix. Initially he just wanted to show Brynstone what to look for, but later the fake played a significant role in the story.
Barber: But he'll find it is not gold and will not make him bold and brave ...
Sancho: Well, at least he'll find it useful if he ever needs a shave.
In the Star Wars Expanded Universe, the novel Millennium Falcon is an extended homage to The Maltese Falcon. Guess what the "Lost Treasure of the Old Republic" turns out to be. For that matter, a similar story was written thirty years ago, Han Solo and the Lost Legacy.
Actually, in the case of Millennium Falcon, it's even more annoying than usual. This "lost treasure" was supposedly left in the dying days of the Republic as something that would critically undermine Palpatine. Once the treasure is revealed, it pretty clearly demonstrates how inept and impotent Palpatine's opposition must've been.
The quest to locate the "lost treasure" ends up being an It's the Journey That Counts moment for Han, Leia, and their granddaughter, however.
In the Expanded Universe Enemy Lines duology, the New Republic forces make use of a Mock Guffin to lure the Yuuzhan Vong into a trap, by creating a quartet of flyable, but otherwise nonfunctional ships, and faking a test firing so that they appear to be a new superweapon.
In the Vorkosigan Saga story The Vor Game, Miles finds a body wedged in a drain pipe, who had drowned when the pipe filled up during a storm. Investigating why the man was in the pipe in the first place, he figures out that the dead man had intended to retrieve a package he had stored in a different pipe, only he had entered the wrong pipe, got stuck, and drowned. Miles finds the package and opens it, revealing... some home-baked cookies that the dead soldier had been hiding from his barracks-mates.
The Mouse That Roared is the story of a tiny nation that accidentally acquires the prototype "Q-Bomb," a weapon with planet destroying capabilities. They use it to hold the world hostage. At the end, the weapon's designer realizes that it was a dud.
In Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, Milkman Dead hits his head on a sack hanging on the ceiling within Pilate's house, which he tells his father. His father then assumes that it must be the gold that he and Pilate found in the cave that Pilate wouldn't let her brother get his hands on, that she actually went back when they separated and took the gold for herself. Milkman Dead and his friend Guitar Bains then break into Pilate's house in the middle of the night to steal the bag, only to later find out that all it contained was the bones of a man that Pilate and her brother had killed in the cave.
Chelios: What kind of sick freak carries around something like that in a box? I am shocked to my fucking core. You have got some serious problems, motherfucker.
Running Blind by Desmond Bagley. The protagonist is a retired spy coerced into delivering a mysterious electronic circuit during a trip to Iceland to see his girlfriend. He finds himself being pursued by a former KGB adversary, and comes to realise that the man who gave him the assignment is a KGB mole. After he and his girlfriend nearly get killed on several occasions, he exposes The Mole and delivers the package, only to be told he was supposed to let the KGB have it — the circuit actually does nothing; it was designed to waste the time of Soviet researchers. Of course thanks to their mole the KGB knew that anyway; they were just going through the motions to keep his cover.
Live Action TV
Gilligan's Island once had a plot where the castaways find a suitcase which, at a glance, appears to contain top-secret spy documents, leaving them in danger of being chased by enemy spies. One Dream Sequence later, the documents fall out and they turn out to be spy documents from the second World War, which had ended twenty years prior and nobody was after.
Similarly, many Mock Guffins come through Rick's door on Pawn Stars.
They're found in the occasional storage locker on Storage Wars.
In the fifth season episode of Angel entitled "Destiny," Angel and Spike beat the living crud out of each other in their race to drink from the Cup of Eternal Torment. If my memory serves, the cup turned out to have a "Made in China" sticker on the bottom and was filled with Mountain Dew.
On Buffy the Vampire Slayer Spike and Harmony are searching for the Gem of Amara, a relic that makes vampires invulnerable. They find it in a tomb full of jewelry and other artifacts. Spike thinks it's a huge gaudy necklace and puts it on. Moments later he tries to kill Harmony in a fit of rage only to discover when he fails that the real Gem was a relatively nondescript ring that Harmony had put on.
In SeaQuest DSV, Krieg discovers a cache of glowing gems on the ocean floor and hoards as many as he can aboard ship...only to discover that they're bioluminescent fish poop, which trades its glow for an unbearable smell as it melts.
An episode of Bones has the eponymous scientist thinking she's stumbled across this. A prop sword is treated as much more valuable than its component parts simply because the movie it appeared in is so popular. As with much of anything, Bones does not understand why it is so. Probably because people seem willing to kill for the damned thing.
The movie was not so much popular as known to be the first Arthurian film ever made (or one of the first). This made the sword valuable as a part of film history.
Similar to the "Al Capone's Vault" case (described below), Kenan & Kel once found a map to a secret safe (albeit Kel insisted it read "sofa"). Following the map's instructions, they eventually found and opened the safe, and found a sofa. Kenan was understandbly disappointed but Kel actually liked the sofa (and the fact he was right).
In "I Am God", a second season episode of Veronica Mars, Veronica is haunted by dreams of the bus crash (the season-long mystery she's trying to solve), and in particular of a drawing of a scythe hanging over nine tombstones, with the words "I Am God" written underneath. She thinks it's a key to how the bus crashed, but it turns out to just be an album cover for an indie rock band.
The basis of Captain Jack Harkness' time-traveling scam in Doctor Who. He found an empty space-ambulance, tossed it past Rose and the Doctor (he thought they were Time Agents) and crashed it in London in the middle of the Blitz. The plan was that he would pass it off as a warship (they have ambulances in wars!), charge an exorbitant amount for it, take half in advance, and the ship would be "coincidentally" hit by a German bomb before the agents could realize they'd bought junk. It all goes wrong because the ship wasn't empty; it was full of confused "nanogenes" that started acting as The Virus and nearly consumed humanity.
Goes both ways in Brave Fencer Musashi. Whenever the titular hero finds an unappraised treasure he'll describe it as an "old helmet", an "ancient book", or an "old bracelet". Those items turn out to be a bedpan, a comic book, and the MacGuffin L-Brace, respectively.
There are fake Master Swordsall over the place in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. The game even starts to remark on how amazing it is that you retrieved it for a moment before revealing the fake. You're not likely to be fooled, though, especially after seeing what the real Master Sword looks like.
In Mother 3, Wess sends Duster into a castle to retrieve a magical artifact critical for the safety of the world. Unfortunately for him, he's not told specifically what it is. He finds an interesting urn of some kind and brings it back to Master Wess. It turns out to be something else completely useless (the Noble Spittoon) and Wess is furious.
For the record, it WAS Wess's own fault for not mentioning that the item was magical, protected by a doorway that can only be opened by a special dance Duster was taught in his childhood, or anything other than the thing Duster was supposed to get was shiny.
Wess:As for what this "certain important item" is... No... There is no need for me to tell you. If a thief can't determine the value of what he steals, he's a disgrace to the profession.
In NetHack, there are fake Amulets of Yendor that, if you try to use at the end game, will cause you not only to lose the game, but have the gods mock you.
Silent Hill 3 contains an especially cruel example. That Seal of Metatron you braved the ghastly Brookhaven Hospital to recover? The one that was supposed to put a stop to Claudia's twisted plans? Worthless piece of crap.
A quest in The Sims Medieval lets you make these and sell them to the Nobles to sabotage their war effort. There's a sword, staff and suit of armor whose purpose is to look really impressive but actually be low quality. They mostly contain Cruddium.
Breath of Fire I does this with Karn. On a quest to find the hand book that will teach him how to become the greatest thief ever, he has to walk through a trap filled pyramid. When he finally gets to the end, all that it says is 'If you made it this far, you are already the world's greatest thief.'
Shadowrun Returns has one with the 100,000 nuyen reward offered by the late Sam Watts, which he just doesn't have. The significance of it depends entirely on whether the player wants to avenge Sam for the reward, or for justice.
8-Bit Theater had the armoire of invincibility, which is just regular old heavy furniture.
Technically, the armoire itself is invincible, in that it cannot be destroyed. However, the invincibility does not extend beyond the armoire, so it's pretty worthless.
Also, the bottom is made of cheap cardboard.
And it's not the artifact Fighter was looking for in the first place. Matoya had the Armoire and Armor of Invincibility, and gave Fighter the wrong one.
American Dad! had an episode where Steve and Roger are tasked with finding an old man's inheritance to his grandson. It's just a burlap bag that light's up when opened.
In an episode of Futurama that parodies the film Titanic, Bender's love interest gets sucked into a black hole, leaving him with only her bracelet (a parody of "The Heart of the Sea") to console the saddened robot (with its monetary value). Upon request, Hermes promptly inspects it and informs Bender that "It's fake, mon," sending him into even greater despair(about its monetary value).
A few episodes of The Simpsons have involved a Golden Helmet at one point or another.
Stroker and Hoop plays it straight, and then subverts it in an episode. A two-piece, ancient, mystical Chinese sword, wanted by ninjas, when put together, turns out to just light up like a flashlight, which Stroker notes was probably mind-blowing in ancient China. Then, it ends up resurrecting someone from the dead while nobody else is paying attention.
One-Episode WonderKorgoth of Barbaria features this in its main plot. Korgoth is caught in a Poison and Cure Gambit and sent to retrieve the "golden goblin" a relic of a bygone age, from the tower of powerful wizard after the wizard seemingly disappears. After a dangerous trip that includes massive geographic obstacles, being attacked by living trees, dealing with 50 foot tallpigeons, and finding that the wizard is very much alive and not happy about the intrusion, the legendary golden goblin turns out to be a cheap, kitschy figurine that plays tinny music and dances when a button is pushed.
My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: At the end of "Magic Duel", Trixie finds out, after unwittingly relinquishing the Alicorn Amulet, that the supposedly more powerful green amulet she acquired from Twilight was just one of Zecora's doorstops.
In the mid '80s, a secret vault was found in a building once owned by Al Capone. Geraldo Rivera hosted a prime time special devoted to opening the vault and finding what treasures it contained. Anything could be in there. Money! Bodies! Pictures of J. Edgar Hoover in compromising situations. Anything at all. Unfortunately, "anything" turned out to be "nothing". On live TV. After two hours of build up. Awk-ward!
It wasn't actually a vault, though there was some justification for thinking it could have been (Capone was known to have had a rather extensive network of secret tunnels). It also didn't literally contain "nothing" (which would have made for a very short show), since behind the wall were tons of fill dirt. From the sponsors' perspective this wasn't an unmitigated disaster, since the possibility that something might be discovered behind/underneath the dirt kept people watching up to the end (when the crew discovered another concrete wall and knocked it open in the last minute, to reveal ... more dirt). It didn't do Rivera's career any favors, though.
Homer Simpson even started to write a song about it before he came up with the B-Sharps' hit single Baby On Board:
A news article reported about a mugger who stole a plastic bag from an old woman walking her dog. The bag, of course, turned out to be full of dog shit.
There is a very old form of scam (so old it's incredible people continue to fall for it today) where an apparently mentally challenged man approaches a victim in the street offering her (as it is often an old woman) the chance to buy some "stamps" in an envelope or suitcase. The "stamps" are bills of the highest denomination, so the full content can easily sum thousands or even millions, but the supposed retard, apparently unaware of the value of bills, asks only for some hundreds in coins. The victim is then approached by another "smart" guy that offers her to buy the "stamps" together and divide them between themselves. The victim agrees, and the smart guy always gets the upper half of the money while she gets the other which, as she realizes when arriving home, it's just sheets of newspaper.
In Spain that scam is not only old, it's actually famous, to the point that: a) it has its own name ("el timo de la estampita"), b) said name has become shorthand to indicate that something looks suspiciously scammy, and c) it was acted out in a 60s comedy film (Los Tramposos) as a plot point, with Tony Leblanc as the "retard" and Antonio Ozores as the "smart". The whole scene is here. Of course, with so much exposure, some people still fall for it. It's one of the quintessential scams also because, like all good scams, preys upon the unsavoury characteristics of the victim (greed and unscrupulousness) in a way that if you fell for it you'd be deeply ashamed to confess it.