Black Mage: We came to the frozen asshole of the planet like Sarda said. What I wanna know is, where's the crappy item of great power we were promised, 'cause I don't see it. If it's something lame and immaterial like "friendship" or "trust", I'll have to cut his face off.A type of Plot Twist in which people spend a great deal of effort to find what they've been led to believe would be a very valuable treasure, only to find out that it isn't what they expected. Instead of gold, jewels, or something else that has practical or monetary value, it turns out to be something else entirely. There are four main variants to this trope:
Red Mage: Yeah, I don't need a quest to teach me the importance of faking friendship.
Red Mage: Yeah, I don't need a quest to teach me the importance of faking friendship.
- The thing that the character thought would contain a treasure turns out empty. Either the characters were misled and there never was a treasure to begin with, or the treasure used to be there but is long gone.
- The treasure turns out to be something that has only sentimental, intellectual, spiritual, or philosophical value to those that originally owned or created the treasure. If the villain and the hero are competing for the same treasure, the villain will almost certainly fail to appreciate the value of the treasure, while the hero may in fact find something worthwhile in the treasure.
- The treasure may have held value at the time, but for one reason or another it is obsolete by the time it is dug up. The most common variant of this is Confederate money, which has its own section below, but it can also apply to vouchers for businesses that no longer exist anymore, metals that were precious at the time but are common today, and so on.
- The character assumes the treasure is worthless after getting it and tries to actively invoke this Trope and its positive values (even if it's a lie). Then it turns out that the treasure had worth (just not one immediately apparent to anybody involved in getting it) and the character sees his life demolished in the ensuing Springtime for Hitler. Often Double Subverted when whatever forces demolished his life go too far and perform an action that renders the treasure actually worthless.
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"It's Confederate Money!"
A long-since-discredited example, in the examples below Confederate money is considered worthless and a waste of resources. Of course, preserved Confederate money is worth more than US currency of the same denomination, with mint-condition $100 and $500 bills worth tens of thousands of US dollars. The real irony, of course, is that Confederate money is so valuable now because most of it was destroyed due to being considered worthless. note note Somewhat similar to Confederate money is World War II-era German POW Camp scrips. Under Geneva Conventions, a captor nation is required to pay its POWs at a rate equal to its own men (enlisted men had to subject themselves to forced labor to be paid... although not working wasn't really an option; officers were exempt from working). The catch is that POWs (at least those from Western countries) were paid in scrips that were good only at camp facilities, which offered nothing worthwhile for them to buy. Most threw away these scrips, but authentic World War II German camp scrips are now worth hundreds of dollars.
- The old The Three Investigators children's novels contained an example that lacked a clear moral: a sunken riverboat holding a watertight chest that contains millions of dollars in Confederate money. It may have been worthless when the book was written, but...
- An episode of the George Reeves The Adventures of Superman centered around an old man trying to keep his loot safe from robbers. Turns out to be Confederate money, considered worthless in the 1950s.
- In the Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! episode "A Night of Fright Is No Delight" (January 10, 1970), the money Scooby inherits turns out to be Confederate currency. When the chest containing the money is opened, the characters' reactions are those of disappointment.
- In the M.A.S.K. episode "Patchwork Puzzle" (December 11, 1985), the villains are after a large cache of money hidden during the Civil War (specifically, around the Washington Monument)...and of course they never expect it to be Confederate cash. By this point, the actual value of Confederate money was becoming more obvious, so VENOM was just dumb.
- The Dukes of Hazzard once found a treasure map that led to a lost fortune. This was one of the few times Boss Hogg managed to come out on top, only to discover the fortune was Confederate money. (The real treasure was the payroll document signed by General Lee.)
- Little House on the Prairie: The episode "The Inheritance" saw the Ingalls inherit a distant relative's fortune … in Confederate money. The plot twist came when they had already run up a huge line of credit at the Mercantile purchasing new farm equipment, seeds, etc. with a promise to pay.
- The Street Fighter movie has a variation. (Possibly an inversion.) When Guile and his men raid Bison's fortress, Dee Jay basically says Screw This, I'm Out of Here! and runs off with a large suitcase. He runs into Sagat who cracks open the suitcase and discovers it's full of the money that was to be the currency for Bison's new country. Thus instead of the money being for a country that no longer exists, the money is for a country that would never exist.
- In one of the McAuslan stories, a British army unit in post-WW2 Libya catch the local villagers sneaking into their fort to dig up a trunkful of Italian money, apparently unaware it's now worthless after the defeat of Fascist Italy. When the locals steal it back, no-one bothers to do anything about it.
- In Bordan Deal's story "The Big Bajoor" and the movie based on it gypsy fortuneteller Vanya swindles an elderly woman out of the fortune left to her by her late father. Vanya's abusive husband Sandor burns the money when they discover that it's Confederate and she taunts him about it after finding an accompanying book which lists exactly how much it was worth in then-modern US dollars.
- British TV series "When The Boat Comes In"; Russian sailor Kaganovich comes to England to confront Jack Ford and to recover the money his father paid him to smuggle him out of revolutionary Russia; Ford hands over every penny, unspent; to reveal that Kaganovich Senior had paid him in money issued by Kerensky's Provisional Government, and which became worthless when Lenin's Bolshevik Government issued a new currency.
Anime & Manga
- The Area 88 manga had a chapter where the base's pilots go mad combing the desert after an intercepted radio transmission mentions a convoy carrying gold. It turns out to be the enemy's top tactician, General Gold, who died in an attack on the convoy. The pilot who made the attack (who had been missing for a day or two) had burned half of Gold's papers and used the other half as tissues, since he couldn't read them. The base commander bursts out laughing upon hearing this, since deciphering them could have ended the war.
- In Ashitano Nadja we have George, Nadja and Kennosuke setting off to find a treasure that supposedly belonged to Joan of Arc It turns out to be a beautiful flower patch that Joan herself planted as a teenager, before leaving her beloved countryside.
- The episode of Cardcaptor Sakura with the Shield card explains that the spirit of said card has, appropriately, an instinct for guarding things and will, in the absence of proper guidance, find some treasure, latch onto it, and protect it from all comers (including, in this case, the very annoyed rightful owner). The treasure it selects is not revealed until Sakura breaks through the shield and captures the card, and turns out to be of purely sentimental value a bouquet of flowers in memory of Sakura's late mother, treasured by her cousin aka Tomoyo's mom..
- In this same episode is a similar example, revealing Tomoyo's most prized possession. Tomoyo is filthy rich, has her own bodyguards, cool high-tech toys, and a seemingly limitless budget to dress up Sakura in cute costumes and film her. Her most prized possession is a child's eraser, in the shape of a bunny rabbit, worth maybe ten yen, given to her by her best friend Sakura on the day they met and lovingly cherished for years afterwards.
- Detective Conan has played with this a few times:
- Episode 137 had a mansion where the treasure was the view from a hidden window. On Conan revealing this, the villain had a complete breakdown over all they had done to find it - including mass murder and disfiguring their own face. Another episode had the treasure be the experience of the journey to find it... except there was also a real treasure, as some robbers had been hiding their gains in the same spot.
- In the 11th Non-Serial Movie, Jolly Roger in the Deep Azure, the "pirate treasure" of Anne Bonny and Mary Read turns out to be a hidden but empty pirate ship, built by Anne while waiting for Mary to get out of prison, which crumbles to bits upon being exposed to outside air.
- In the anime-only "Meiji Restoration Mystery Tour", the treasure turns out to be a letter talking about the ideals of the Meiji Restoration. Of course, the villains that are also trying to get what they think will be find a treasure rich enough to buy the whole country are not impressed. This is somewhat subverted when it is revealed that the letter had a rare and valuable stamp with a printing error on it that would have been worth a lot if the villain had not torn it up.
- Subverted in Dirty Pair episode 15. A treasure hunter looking for treasure in the ruins of an alien planet has hired Kei and Yuri to help him find the treasure and fight off a rival treasure hunter in exchange for a share of the profits. It turns out that the treasure is a piece of paper with writing in the alien language, which Kei and Yuri can't read but the treasure hunter can. He claims that it says is "there is a value in cooperating with each other", referring to it taking three people to open the door to the room where it was. Yuri comments that "this is the typical ending to a treasure hunt". However, the writing was actually instructions on how to use some Lost Technology and thus highly valuable; the treasure hunter lied about it to avoid paying them. He does later send them flowers - an entire roomful of roses.
- At the last volume of Doraemon manga, a chapter was about Nobita, Doraemon, Giant and Suneo competed in finding real treasures as 2 pirate teams. The treasures were there before they decided to make it as a pirate game. However, the very pirate game (which consisted of them sailing at sea and shooting cannonballs at each other) delayed their treasure hunting, resulting in someone had already dug the treasures ahead of them.
- Double Subverted in Dragon Ball: the leader of the villainous Red Ribbon Army sends his Mooks after the title artifacts so that he can make a wish, something that could potentially grant the army vast powers and resources. His subordinates are not pleased to discover that his planned wish is to be taller.
- In the Fruits Basket manga, Akito's prized box contains... nothing. Akito was told that it contained her father's soul, but it was a lie from the person who gave it to her.
- Frequently serves as the Aesop to many episodes of Guardian Fairy Michel—mostly due to the fact that the Black Hammer Gang seem completely unable to understand the metaphorical use of the word "treasure." Being villains, they never "get" it. However, the "treasures" are always appreciated by someone else, meaning their antics to "steal" them nonetheless disrupt the lives of many innocents.
- Hunter × Hunter: Subverted Trope. Near the end of the Greed Island arc, the group defeats Razor and goes up a tower to gain an ultra-rare card, Patch of Shore. Their NPC guide talks about how there was no treasure in a particular cave and that its beauty and holiness was the real treasure...after which the patch of shore near the cave becomes a card. The card isn't particularly valuable in and of itself, but it is necessary to beat the game.
- Actually, it kind of is valuable. It's an SS card, the highest rarity ranking, only 3 copies of it can exist at a given time in the entire game and obtaining it is spectacularly hard. As soon as the protagonists obtain it they manage to copy it, monopolise it and therefore force the villains into a confrontation if they want a shot at winning the game. Strategically, it's a vital asset.
- Part 3 of Jojos Bizarre Adventure has Polnareff encounter a wish-granting genie (that turns out to be an enemy stand.) When it's revealed that the genie grants wishes by just making things out of dirt, he's disappointed when he realizes that the treasure horde he jokingly used his first wish on turned out to be worthless.
- The Law of Ueki has a Double Subversion: The team finds a treasure box as part of a competition, and considering the theme of the show, it's pretty clear what its going to be. But then they open it...and it's a series of rare trading cards with the Celestial King's face on them. Not for resale, either.
- Lupin III:
- Played straight in the Lupin III film The Castle of Cagliostro: the big "Treasure of Cagliostro" that the Count was after turns out to be some sunken ruins at the bottom of a man-made lake, which prompts Lupin to remark, "This is a treasure for all mankind. Too big for my pocket, anyway." Presumably, the princess in this story will be able to parlay this find into a profitable tourist attraction.
- A number of movies and TV specials that followed, such as Lupin III: Operation: Return the Treasure, have had similar non-treasure "treasures" — possibly largely as a Shout-Out to Cagliostro which continues to influence the franchise heavily. In Lupin III Stolen Lupin, Lupin rents out a village from its occupants for a day for the sole purpose of tricking the baddies into thinking the "Lupin Treasure" is stored there. One of the guest characters then concludes that the real "Lupin Treasure" is his friendships with the rest of his gang.
- Subverted in Lupin III: The Secret of Twilight Gemini: Lupin finally assembles the titular split diamond, allowing a long-suppressed Moroccan tribe the chance to access its ancestral treasure. It turns out to be an empty cave with a message on the wall stating that community is the real treasure. The tribe's princess is content with this, but Fujiko yells in frustration and kicks the wall... causing its facade to crumble. The real secret? The cave's walls are covered in diamonds under the facade.
- Lupin III Princess Of The Breeze features the gang chasing Plot Coupons made of gems, and discovering an ancient lost treasure of gold, paintings, and technology. After the climax, Lupin reveals the object that he'd been trying to steal. A corkscrew. Granted, it's a gold corkscrew, but he was chasing it because it was a treasure that his grandfather had described, rather than the intrinsic worth of the object.
- Lupin III (Red Jacket) episode "To Be or Nazi Be": Hitler's legacy contains the stuff that he didn't want anyone to see, because he was so embarrassed.
- Farewell to Nostradamus plays with this too, with Lupin's gang after a book of the prophecies of Nostradamus, which assuming it's an original from that long ago could be expected to be rare and valuable. The Nostradamus Sect is after it too, but since they're a Scam Religion they want to destroy it to avoid being exposed, and they never intended to pay the $50 million reward they promised Fujiko. When the treasure is finally found, it turns out that Julia had been doodling all over it while playing in the vault as a child, which made it essentially unreadable and ruined any historical value it might have had.
- Pulled twice in an episode of Mahoraba, when the residents of Narutakisou go on a treasure hunt. What they pulled out turns to be photos of the residents three generations before, along with a note saying that the earlier group went on the same hunt and found nothing but a note that said "Good Job".
- Subverted in Mahou Sensei Negima!, after the
Baka Rangerslow-ranking students in the class go on a quest for a magic book that will let you pass any test. The book exists, but a complicated series of events leads to a Friend or Idol Decision, and they spend a few days studying the old fashioned way. They all pass, and learn a lesson about hard work or something. All of it turned out to be a Xanatos Gambit by the Headmaster.
- In One Piece:
- Man-stuck-in-a-chest Gaimon has spent at least twenty years obsessing over a few treasure chests sitting on the top of a small peak he can't climb up. Luffy offers to go up and fetch them, but when he does refuses to give the chests to Gaimon. Gaimon realizes that the treasure he had been looking forward to is already gone, but soon decides that at least now he can get on with his life, and really enjoy the island he's been trapped on.
- In one TV special, the Straw Hat Pirates help the guest find her father's treasure in hope of sharing it. Unfortunately (especially for Nami), it was a gigantic pearl, so they couldn't take any of it. Besides, the true value of the pearl is that it is a token of her father's drive for adventure.
- Also the treasure called 'One Piece' itself was considered a rumor until Whitebeard confirmed its existence with his dying breath, though what exactly the treasure is remains a mystery. In addition, Luffy, when given a chance to not only learn that it exists but exactly what it is, vehemently insists on being left ignorant about the One Piece. To Luffy, One Piece isn't the treasure, the act of trying to find it is.
- A little short story in the Ouran High School Host Club manga dealt with the host club trying to find the perfect soup that their principal had sampled when he was younger. Turns out it was a very common soup and that the one giving the soup to the principal would later be his wife.
- Phi Brain: Puzzle of God deconstructed #2 to #1. A puzzle of the week was designed to reward the solver with a view of beautiful landscape. By the time the protagonist solves it, it has already been destroyed to build leisure facilities.
- Ranma ½:
- There is a rather silly subversion in the story where Ranma finally reveals himself to his mother. The other half of the story is the attempt to keep his father from taking a family treasure, hidden in a box the whole time, and pawning it. When Genma finally gets the treasure and takes it to the pawnshop, it's only a single slip of paper. The slip of paper is a pawn ticket: one of their ancestors had already sold it. It doesn't really matter, as it was apparently worth about twenty bucks.
- Also subverted in the Ranma movie Big Trouble In Nekonron, China. Two halves of a scroll that was long ago cut in half are reunited to reveal a precious secret — which turns out to be a pickle recipe. However, the pickle recipe is greatly prized by the couple who reassembled the scroll. Mostly because the male, Prince Kirin, literally can't eat anything but pickles.
- Nodoka herself pulled this on Ranma and Akane (and their suitors) accidentally. She gives her son a gift to give Akane, and after opening it, everyone believes it's an engagement ring. Cue the chases, battles, claims and flying weaponry before Ranma can finally give it to her. Turned out to be a pill box with a unique design, for the aspirin and antacids for the hardships that a woman in the Saotome family must endure.
- Season 2 of Strike Witches had Perrine, Lucchini, Yoshika, and Lynnette find a treasure map in the ocean. After searching through a series of caves, they come to a sprawling herb garden. Very precious to the witches who hid the garden ages ago, but with the increased availability of said herbs in the time frame of the series, they had little value left.
- Subverted in Transformers: Robots in Disguise: after an adventure in some ruins, Koji and the Autobots find the mysterious treasure Skybite was after, which turns out to be a picture of Koji and his dad. However, it soon turned out that the picture was placed to disguise the real treasure, a microchip containing information on Fortress Maximus' location.
- Disney Ducks Comic Universe:
- Discussed in the Don Rosa story "A Letter From Home". Though Scrooge and the rest find the treasure they came for, Scrooge himself makes it perfectly clear at the end that the real treasure he got from this adventure was the reconciliation with his sister, and the letter from his father.
- In "the Treasury of Croesus", Scrooge discovers King Croesus' money bin. Inside is a chamber where Croesus kept his 'greatest treasure'. Upon opening it, he finds that the 'greatest treasure' is the very first coin Croesus, inventor of money, literally made. Scrooge was less than amused, particularly because he gave up the rest of the bin's contents for the right to it. The coin isn't literally worthless of course, but worth far less than what he just gave up.
- In Carl Barks' Uncle Scrooge comic "Back to Long Ago", Scrooge and Donald race against each other for a treasure buried on an island centuries ago, only to find that the chest contains nothing but a bunch of dried-up potatoes: at the time, a new and marvelous vegetable unknown to the English.
- One Danish story had a similar twist, where the treasure turns out to be tons and tons of salt — which of course was used for money back in ye olden days.
- Another Carl Barks story revolves around Scrooge buying up all the 1910-issued U.S dimes, then dumping all except one in the Mariana Trench so his sole remaining coin would become incredibly valuable. After his coin is accidentally destroyed, he goes diving for a new one, only to discover that the area he dumped the coins in is the hiding place of Atlantis, hidden away from the rest of the world by the almost insurmountable depth. After a long adventure, Scrooge and his nephews manages to escape with a few coins, only for Scrooge to find out back on land that the coins he have are now so rare that the only person that can afford to buy them is himself, making the treasure both incredibly valuable AND effectively worthless.
- And, of course, there's the fact that Scrooge McDuck's own greatest treasure is the first dime he ever made, an item with very little intrinsic value, but it representative of Scrooge's hard work (the fact that it's owned by the richest duck alive is the reason why Magica DeSpell constantly seeks to steal it, because it allegedly would grant great totemic power to a spell that would make her rich... however, various of her schemes to get it (such as going back in time and taking it from Scrooge when he was a defenseless kid or allying herself with the Beagle Boys) have always made a significant (although temporary) dent on Scrooge's monetary worth, nullifying whatever power she could have obtained from having it in her possession).
- Back when 3-2-1 Contact published a magazine in conjunction with their series, they ran a comic art serial titled "Cosmic Crew", which managed to do this trope both ways. After obtaining the final piece of their treasure on earth, the crew received a message about the importance of knowledge... which also added that they had been left some scholarship money.
- One of the original Richie Rich comic books plays with the trope. Richie puts something he feels is valuable in a safe while explaining to his dog that valuables should be kept somewhere safe. So Dollar the dog has the bright idea of digging up his favorite bone and replacing Richie's treasure in the safe with his own. Later, robbers crack the safe...and find the bone. They assume it's a valuable fossil. Their boss disabuses them of the notion ("It's a two-day old soup bone") by abusing them. Back at the Rich mansion, Dollar is heartbroken...until Richie's dad has the butler toss a few soup bones at him.
- Archie Comics' Sonic the Hedgehog does this in issue 7. The Freedom Fighters find a treasure map belonging to Uncle Chuck, but aren't impressed — since Robotnik conquered Mobius, money has no value. Sonic suggests that the treasure might be an invention Chuck made that could help in the resistance, so they go anyway. Robotnik hears about the hunt, and at the end of the story, gets away with the treasure. However, Sonic isn't too upset, having at that moment remembered what the treasure is, and how sentimental Uncle Chuck was. Robotnik was not amused.
[while Robotnik is having a tantrum]
SWATbot: I suggest we stay out of his way for few days... Until he calms down...
Burrowbot: ...Or he'll destroy us all!
Caterkiller: Tsk! Tsk! All that trouble over a pair of Sonic's bronzed baby shoes!
- A Bamse story from 1998 evolves around the gang and two shore thieves looking for a treasure chest in a subterranean maze. They find the chest, open it, and inside is... a pancake recipe.
- An obscure caricature comic had two archeologists spending fourty years in search of King Solomon's treasure. When they finally locate it, they find an inscription reading "The greatest tresure is to love and be loved". Cue Heroic B.S.O.D. and cardiac arrest.
- In The Muppet Show Comic Book, during the "Treasure of Peg-Leg Wilson" arc, the Muppets literally tear apart the Muppet Theater in search of the treasure of pirate-turned-vaudeville-performer Peg-Leg Wilson, which turns out to be a collection of old letters. Fortunately, the old stamps on said letters are valuable enough to cover the costs of repairing the theater.
- In one Captain America story, the Red Skull is after Hitler's lost strongbox, imagining it to contain scientific and military secrets. As it turned out, the box contained the things Hitler wanted to preserve of his legacy: watercolor paintings, anti-Semitic writings that inspired him, and some personal photos and memorabilia of his World War I career. This is another case where, while the treasure isn't what was expected, it still isn't worthless if you actually do some research and try to find the right buyer. Memorabilia from a historical figure as prolific and infamous as Hitler could be worth obscene amounts of money; in the real world, surviving paintings by Hitler sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
- Hitman Annual #1 is about the pursuit of A MacGuffin Full of Money; a coffin full of banknotes. After numerous betrayals, double-crosses and murders, the coffin is eventually obtained, but the weather, insects and vermin have completely destroyed the paper money.
- In a Spider-Man story, Spider-Man has a rematch with the burglar who murdered Uncle Ben years ago, in the same townhouse where the Parker family lived at the time. It turns out the reason the burglar robbed the house in the first place was because he had heard that the house was once occupied by a retired gangster who had left a box full of documents in the attic detailing the location of his fortune. After the burglar is taken care of (he dies of fright when Spider-Man reveals his identity to him), Peter asks Aunt May about the box. She says that she and Ben had thrown the box out years earlier, as silverfish had destroyed the contents.
- Comic Book "Mystique": Mystique burgles the home of The Richest Man In The World (as a favour for her friend Fantomex)and steals his Most Treasured Possession; when she opens the box containing it, it is revealed to be... one of Spider-Man's discarded old costumes. Her reaction is, "YOU HAVE GOT TO BE FREAKING KIDDING ME!"
- The Spirou and Fantasio story Spirou et les héritiers does this with an inheritance. Fantasio and his cousin Zantafio have to undergo three trials (invent something for the betterment of mankind, race in the Auto Grand Prix, and capture a Marsupilami) in order to compete which of them gets the inheritance from their long-lost uncle. In the end, it turns out the uncle was broke and had nothing to leave his nephews — and so he devised the trials, so that the inheritance would be the accomplishments, adventures and life lessons the two men achieved while undergoing the trials.
- In one Woody Woodpecker comic, Woody, his niece, and his nephew run out of gas and seek help at the nearby Red Diamond Mine. Unfortunately, two men are in the process of holding up the place. Woody and the kids are forced to help the robbers and Woody tricks them into letting him overload their helicopter with the diamonds. After the helicopter crashes into the nearby pond, Woody offers to help the prospector recover the diamonds from the helicopter. The prospector reveals it's actually a salt mine and his name is Red Diamond.
- Knights of the Dinner Table:
- Subverted in a story where B.A. tried to play the "knowledge is the greatest treasure" scenario by having the party discover an ancient library. Brian exploits the pricing charts in the manual, selling the ancient parchments and furniture to collectors and raking in a hundred times what they would have on any normal adventure, much to B.A.'s dismay.
- In another storyline, the players find themselves with a worthless treasure — after they win the Hack Master Tournament, they discover that the advertised $1500 grand prize is actually a voucher redeemable only for certain specific (i.e. crap that they're trying to unload) Hard 8 products. The Hard 8 staffer in charge of the tournament had wisely left before this was discovered and a riot broke out.
Films — Animation
- Felix the Cat: The Movie had this. The Duke of Zil is outraged to discover that the magical book of power he's spent the movie searching for has nothing but the words "Truth, Love and Wisdom" written on the pages. Played with in that the book still has the power to kill the Master Cylinder when Felix throws it at him.
- A variation was used in Aladdin, where the dusty old lamp provided near-infinite possibilities. The various treasures were not only just the tip of what the lamp could do, but not touching them was enforced by the cave.
- Kung Fu Panda played it straight not once but twice: has the 'secret ingredient' be nothing at all, and the scroll detailing the ultimate technique is blank. In both cases, it's not the secret that's valuable, it's the journey and growth needed to earn the secret that really ends up being useful.
"For something to be special, you just have to believe it to be special."
- ParaNorman: The main character is instructed by his uncle's ghost to read a certain book on the grave of a witch who had been sentenced to death in his hometown. He assumes it's a spell that will stop the curse from happening. Turns out it's a copy of Sleeping Beauty. Which does postpone the curse for a year. The book really is just Sleeping Beauty, but it was the witch's favorite bedtime story, and somebody from her family has to read it to her to keep her sleeping for another year.
- Zig-zagged with Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Most of the exploration crew going to Atlantis expect to find some fabulous treasure there and are willing to kill the remaining people in Atlantis to get it. Milo, on the other hand, is completely looking forward to the knowledge he'll gain on such an ancient and advanced civilization. Both happen. The crew learns the value of the culture of Atlantis, but in saving the people they unearth a honking big treasure, which they are given as a reward.
Films — Live-Action
- Lost Heirloom example: It Was His Sled. And in Citizen Kane, it gets tossed into the incinerator along with the wealthy protagonist's other worldly possessions. Nobody in the story ever finds out what his lost love/lost treasure "Rosebud" meant, though the audience gets the reveal.
- Example of the first kind: The Maltese Falcon is "The ... uh ... stuff that dreams are made of." The real thing was replaced by a worthless copy.
- In the Casper movie, Casper's father's treasure, which is sealed in an unbreakable vault, is only a baseball and glove with sentimental feelings (but no signatures) attached.
- Actually, the baseball is autographed by one of the players of the Brooklyn Dodgers (which was Casper's favorite team when he was alive). Of course, the value of the baseball in comparison to what was done because of it (attempted murder, murder, lots of personal damage thanks to throwing people to the ghosts) wouldn't really pay back anything.
- National Treasure has the main characters enter the room where they believe the treasure is, only to find...nothing. They conclude that the treasure was already discovered and could now be anywhere in the world. What follows is a Heroic B.S.O.D. for Ben and an inspirational speech by his father about the friendship and fun they had along the way, and how they will never stop looking for the treasure. Cue a Eureka Moment where Ben finds a hidden door that leads to the REAL treasure: a huge vault of historical artifacts. The film works hard to tell us the importance of history, and all that Treasure was still worth more than "friendship" - enough more that half of one percent was enough to buy the main characters a mansion and a Ferrari.
- Similar to the comic, there is also the Richie Rich movie, where the Riches' vault is full of sentimental family objects/heirlooms, which the "villain" Lawrence Van Dough is frustrated to find. Another fine example of Tropes Are Not Bad (and Pragmatic Adaptation while we're at it): the world's richest family wouldn't be the world's richest family for long if they kept all their assets in a vault hidden away somewhere.
Van Dough: What is all of this crap?
Regina Rich: These are our treasured possessions!
Van Dough: But where's the gold... the diamonds... the negotiable bearer bonds? The money! [points his gun at them] Where is the money?
Richard Rich Sr.: [incredulous] In banks. Where else? And the stock market, real estate...
Van Dough: No! Is this some kind of joke? You're telling me there isn't one single platinum bar, or emerald, or $1,000 bill in this entire mountain?
Richard Rich Sr.: Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you, Lawrence, but that's not what we treasure.
Van Dough: [to Mook] Shoot them! Shoot them now, please! [cue Richie showing up]
- Indiana Jones loves to play with this trope:
- In Raiders of the Lost Ark, once opened, The Ark of the Covenant seems empty and therefore is thought to be worthless to the Nazis seeking its supposedly divine powers... until the wrath of God comes pouring out of it and utterly destroys the Nazis present.
- In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the Holy Grail is real enough treasure, but it can't be brought out of its resting place without bringing the whole place down around it. Indy's father realizes, at the end, that the real treasure he gained out of the whole mess was, in his words "Illumination" (and, unspoken, the reconciliation of his relationship with Indy).
- Used straight in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. While there is plenty of gold (among other valuables) in El Dorado, the real treasure turns out to be knowledge that makes your head explode — literally!.
- Comes up in the Young Indiana Jones movie, The Treasure of the Peacock's Eye. Indy and Remy spend the entire film hunting for the titular diamond. After numerous double-crosses (including once by Indy's love interest, who is promptly murdered by yet another searcher) and escapes they finally arrive at the treasure...only to find it gone and a plain, worthless stone in its place. Remy is understandably furious because of how costly the search has been for all parties. The stone itself, however, is hinted to be another clue as to the diamond's whereabouts, and Remy becomes obsessed with tracking it down while Indy gives up and returns home to become the Adventurer Archaeologist we know and love. Ironically, this is revealed to be the same diamond Indy was trying to acquire from Lao Che in the Action Prologue of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. So Indy does manage to acquire it after all...for all of a few minutes before it's lost in the scuffle while trying to escape Lao Che's club.
- Subverted at the end of Duplicity, when the protagonists realize they've been duped out of $35 million by their bosses.
Ray: At least we have each other.Claire: It's really that bad, isn't it?
- Inverted in Race for the Yankee Zephyr (1981). The protagonists think they're after a crashed World War II aircraft with a cargo of medals worth a few thousand at most, and are puzzled as to why a gang of well-armed mooks is so determined to find it. Unknown to them the plane contains the entire payroll for the US South Pacific fleet — approximately $50 million in gold bullion.
- Given a nod to in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl .
Jack: ...and you're completely obsessed with treasure.
Will: That's not true. I'm not completely obsessed with treasure.
Jack (presumably thinking about Elizabeth): Not all treasure is silver and gold, mate.
- Escape to Athena (1979). The head of the Greek Resistance goes with some escaped POW's to loot a mountaintop monastery of gold plates worth $2 million. Instead they find the Germans have converted the monastery into a V2 missile silo, and the only plates they find are a crate of cheap metal ones with Hitler's face on them. At the end it's revealed the Resistance leader had the gold plates stashed at his headquarters (the local whorehouse) the entire time — he just wanted their help in blowing up the German base.
- In the Popeye movie, Popeye spends the duration of the movie searching for his father's hidden treasure; when it is found, it is revealed to be... keepsakes of Popeye's childhood, kept and treasured by his father.
- Discussed in the 1982 version of Conan the Barbarian: A wealthy king hires Conan and his band to retrieve his daughter, who was brainwashed by Thulsa Doom, explains why he is willing to pay them any price they ask for the rescue of his daughter:
There comes a time, thief, when the jewels cease to sparkle, when the gold loses its luster, when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father's love for his child.
- In Mac Gyver Lost Treasure Of Atlantis TV-movie, a villain is forcing MacGyver and friends to find the titular treasure, and they succeed. However, the treasure is simply a cache of ancient scrolls of lost knowledge. The villain is extremely upset and, apparently, too stupid to realize that this find tops the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Collectors, museums, and governments would pay through the nose to buy them.
- Subverted in City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold. Throughout the film, everyone looks for treasure on a map that Curly (the guide from the previous film) had stuffed in his hat. However, when they reach the location on the map, there's a fight with some robbers and Mitch gets shot - but then Duke realizes that they haven't been shot by real bullets. Furthermore, the gold bars in the chest are just iron bars painted gold - and the map they've been following had been copied years ago and used as a trail for a Wild West style treasure hunt by an amusement park. After everyone leaves, dissapointed but wiser, Duke comes by and notes that when his mother mailed the map to Curly, she sent him the missing corner - which details where the gold is really buried. He then drops a gold ingot on the table and says, "It's got friends."
- In Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, the tanker truck Max is driving, and everyone spends half the movie chasing, is filled with sand instead of the petrol they were expecting.
- In the original Game of Death, all of the suggestions and rumors about what is on the highest level of the pagoda (a scroll with an inspirational message, nothing, a mirror etc.) invoke this. This would be in line with Bruce Lee's philosophy. However, none of these are canon.
- A Field In England is built around this trope, right down to a darkly comic moment where a character declares that the true treasure is friendship (as the entire rest of his treasure-hunting party is dying around him).
- In Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol, the Ancient Mysteries of the Freemasons turned out to mean the Bible, whereupon most of the intrigue goes to the dogs.
- One of the earlier Redwall novels has two rats infiltrating the titular abbey and persuading a pair of children to show them its "secret treasure." When they discover the inevitable box of worthless trinkets (because the children have different opinions about what constitutes treasure), one rapidly turns violent...
- In Loamhedge, Bragoon and Saro go hunting for the secret which will supposedly cure Martha's inability to walk. When they find the tomb where the secret was supposed to be buried, it has rotted away and they can't find it. They make up a piece of doggerel to bring back and make Martha feel better. In the meantime, it turns out that her disability is purely psychosomatic, brought on by the obligatory childhood trauma, and she managed to stand up to fight back when she and the head of the Order were attacked.
- The novel The Hero From Otherwhere used this in an odd way. When the two boys who have become friends through saving the world come back to claim the reward promised them, they're not only told that the true treasure is friendship, but they're given a choice: they can either keep the "reward [they] already have" — or they can go back to their own world with the gold and jewels they were expecting, but as enemies, either because of magic or because Humans Are Bastards and the treasure would have gotten in the way of their friendship.
- The novel Tarzan and the Forbidden City features a hunt for a fabulous treasure known as "The Father of Diamonds". In the final chapter, the casket is opened to reveal a lump of coal. "Carbon in its ordinary form is coal, crush it together and diamonds are born."
- The BIONICLE kids book Secret of Certavus has Glatorian Gresh searching for the treasure of a famed Glatorian of the past, apparently the secret to his success. What he finds is a book saying that a warrior's mind is their sharpest tool.
- In The Last Treasure, there was a family treasure (silver spoons made and signed by Paul Revere) at the end but the main characters found out that there was a greater treasure hidden: the first names of the original family's children spelled out SMITH TREASURE, signifying that the children of the original family and the descendants were the real treasure of the family. Also explained by the very reason why the family patriarch built the treasure houses in the first place: the first two was for his twin 8-year old sons who died in a fire and his son who fought and died in the Civil War. The father's last words to the son was that he goes to fight without his blessing. An aunt explained that the patriarch probably buried the treasures as a way to tell his son that he loved him.
- The old The Three Investigators children's novels contained versions of this periodically.
- Played straight in The Boxcar Children book The Mystery of Pirate's Map. The children find the last piece of a famous treasure map and try to get to the treasure before a greedy millioniare, who's spent his whole life trying to find it and stepped on a lot of people in the process. As they're digging for the treasure, they tell him that he can have whatever they find. The treasure chest contains a single coin, and a note from the pirate about "real treasure."
- Star Wars:
- Han Solo and the Lost Legacy involves Han and Chewie getting involved with a bunch of treasure-hunters looking for the lost treasure of Xim the Despot, a pre-Republic warlord who once ruled a mighty empire and reputedly left behind an immense (but possibly mythical) treasure. They wind up finding the "treasure", but it turns out to be a large stockpile of stuff that was vital and hard-to-find strategic war supplies back in Xim's day, but has long since become obsolete or common as dirt. Another example that is not as bad as some others—what people consider valuable depends greatly on their circumstances.
- Millennium Falcon plays with this trope while also featuring an It's the Journey That Counts in the form of the titular starship's backstory. The treasure turns out to be The Insignia of Unity from the Galactic Senate, hidden by those who stole it largely for its symbolic value. By the time the treasure is discovered, however, the trope is subverted, since the insignia has become a sought after collector's item in the years since its theft. Ultimately, this trope is double subverted when the insignia the treasure hunters find turns out to be a fake.
- In James Thurber's The Wonderful O, the island's treasure turns out to be the word "freedom". At least in this case the islanders did their best to make it clear from the outset that there were no real jewels.
- A kids' novel, The Mystery of the Empty House, had the main characters find what was described in an old letter as "the book and other treasures," but it didn't seem very treasure-like to them: just an old dictionary and several sheets of paper covered in gibberish. Then they decoded the writing, discovering that it was a couple of letters of great historical significance — and a Clear Their Name for the ancestor of some of the kids. He'd become infamous as a Tory, but it turned out he'd actually been one of George Washington's best spies ... and one of the letters was from Washington, detailing just how valuable this agent was.
- Subverted in The Ghost in the Noonday Sun by Sid Fleischman: A crew of pirates dig up a chest that they expect to contain treasure, but turns out to contain only cannon balls, which wind up going overboard during the subsequent argument over whose fault it is that they've wasted their time. Shortly afterward, the pirate who buried the chest shows up to recover it, and is horrified and enraged when he learns what's happened — the "cannon balls" were solid silver, which he'd melted down and recast to smuggle it past the authorities.
- Subverted in the Doctor Who Expanded Universe novel The Ultimate Treasure. The Doctor arrives at the end of the treasure hunt expecting this, and finds a room with three doors: one leading to escape, one leading to money, and one leading to "the ultimate treasure." There actually is an amazing fortune behind the second door ... in an airtight vault that re-seals as soon as anyone enters it. The real treasure, such as it is, is behind the third door.
- In the picture book The Littlest Angel, all the angels in Heaven are asked to bring gifts for the birth of Jesus Christ, the best of which will become the Star of Bethlehem. The titular angel, a small boy, offers a box of his earthly possessions from when he was human: a broken dog collar and some shiny pebbles. Because Christ will also be a small boy with simple interests, the Almighty chooses this gift over all the others.
Live Action TV
- In an episode of The Adventures of Superman, a "mad-scientist" doctor invents a machine to make gold. Mob guys force him to make gold for them, until he tells them to make $100 worth of gold, they need to provide him with $200 of platinum.
- In Japanese detective series Aibou, one of the detectives buy a supposedly haunted house. Turns out the "ghosts" are actually the daughters of the original house owner, trying to scare people away so they can look for their deceased (formerly rich) father's greatest treasure—it is, of course, keepsakes of the girls themselves.
- In the Annie Oakley episode "Annie Finds Strange Treasure" a shot and dying prospector tells Annie that he finally found "riches"..."right where I started." The men who murdered him naturally thought he meant mineral wealth. In reality, he'd stayed at a Catholic mission when he first started prospecting, and after all these years realized that true riches were his in God's grace and spiritual peace.
- In the Dutch children's series Bassie & Adriaan, one of the seasons has them go on holiday in Greece. While diving, Bassie finds a stone tablet with strange writing. When they call their friends back home and ask them to translate the tablet, the regular villains overhear them and partial translations suggest it is gives the location of sources of wealth and/or power. In the end however, it turns out to be just a philosophical message about the greatest treasures one can have: happiness, freedom, health.
- The Bionic Woman deconstructs this trope. A room supposedly containing a doomsday weapon holds only a plaque quoting Isaiah 2:4—"They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore." Far from convincing humanity to disarm, however, everyone assumes the threat is real, and are preparing to resort to countermeasures with catastrophic outcomes. Crisis is only averted when Jaime discovers the truth and reports that the doomsday weapon is a lie.
- In the Cold Open for an episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Jake receives an inheritance of one million dollars worth of stock... for Blockbuster Video.
- The Community episode "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" features the study group and Professor Duncan indulging Abed in a claymation fantasy quest to find the true meaning of Christmas. When Abed finally finds it:
- Played with in an episode of Elementary where the twist is that there was a treasure. An ocean explorer finds the location of a wrecked ship with research indicating nothing of value on board. He then comes up with a scheme where he oversells investors up to 1500% more than the cost of an expedition to look for gold on the wreck. As nothing is on board, he can tell the investors it was for nothing while pocketing $14 million. However, just as he's getting ready to go, a researcher shows him a pirate's log indicating there is gold on board the ship, meaning he'd have to pay out ten times whatever treasure he finds. It forces him to kill the researcher then arrange for another explorer to get to the wreck first and clean out the gold so he has an excuse why he couldn't find anything.
- Played with in the Fraggle Rock episode "The Lost Treasure of the Fraggles": Gobo and Red find a map purporting to lead to the fabled, titular "lost treasure of the Fraggles", which Red hopes will be "diamonds". After the usual series of adventures, the usual gang find the treasure, which turns out to be a musical box. Fraggles being inherently musical beings, this is considered to be, in fact, a valuable treasure — one which, unlike material wealth, can be shared without losing its value. (A prophetic comment on music sharing perhaps?)
- An episode of Hawaii Five-0 had the murder of an archeologist who had been interviewing a man years earlier who had claimed to be part of a pirate crew who robbed a fantastic treasure from the Hawaiian governors of the time and hidden it. The Five-0 team soon tracks the killers to the house where they're digging up the basement, both dying in the shoot-out. When they get the chest, it contains only a pair of silver candlesticks. The team discover that the "pirate" was only a child when the raid happened, had been fired for stealing the candlesticks from the museum and made up the pirate story to make money, not realizing how many people would pay for his lies.
- Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger has an odd variant of this trope. Near the end of the series, the Gokaigers have gathered all 35 Greater Powers and have finally unsealed the MacGuffin of the series, the Greatest Treasure in the Universe - a device that could grant them their heart's desire. They're about to use it before they realize there's a catch - doing so would erase the powers of the Super Sentai from existence, meaning that there would have been no Super Sentai at all. After the Zangyack make their second major attack, Sixth Ranger Gai decides that they should use it, but is quickly talked down by the others, showing off their Character Development in the process, but leave him the choice of if they really should or not. Gai's decision? Apologize to his heroes for falling down the Despair Event Horizon, then destroy the treasure.
- Lost: Kate masterminding a bank robbery to get a toy plane out of a safety deposit box probably qualifies.
- Murder, She Wrote: In "Night of the Coyote", the killer's motive turns out to be locating the hidden loot of a stagecoach robber. When the treasure is finally uncovered, it turns out to be a chest of bonds for a company that went bust in 1905.
- Subverted in the Deep Space Nine episode "Who Mourns for Morn?" Quark gets his hands on Morn's treasure, only to find that it's nothing but bricks of worthless gold; all the valuable, unreplicatable latinum had been drained out. (Thanks to 24th Century replicator technology, gold lost a lot of its financial value; only its aesthetic appeal and industrial uses remained.) It's not, however, a total loss for Quark: for his help Morn gave him no small amount of latinum, and as he notes, some "backward" worlds still use gold for money.
- Played straight in the TNG episode "The Chase". The Enterprise, the Klingons, the Romulans, and the Cardassians all piece together a long and convoluted mystery and end up finding... a message recorded by the last of the Master Race that created all of them, hoping that it means they have united in peace... and nothing else. It does lead to a Not So Different moment (of a different sort) between Picard and the Romulan commander, but still...
- This was an in-universe explanation for Trek's Rubber-Forehead Aliens. Of course, they're all bipedal humanoids and have similar enough physiology to interbreed - they all come from the same source. One reviewer called the episode "more Roddenberry than Roddenberry," as the Great Bird was very fond of "Not So Different."
- Played straight in the TNG episode "The Chase". The Enterprise, the Klingons, the Romulans, and the Cardassians all piece together a long and convoluted mystery and end up finding... a message recorded by the last of the Master Race that created all of them, hoping that it means they have united in peace... and nothing else. It does lead to a Not So Different moment (of a different sort) between Picard and the Romulan commander, but still...
- The Lamberts from Step by Step once took a vacation to Hawaii where J.T. and Cody found a treasure map. After following the clues, they tried digging for the treasure where the directions ended. After some fruitless digging, Cody saw that the spot had a perfect view of the sunset. He reasoned that the view was the treasure since it couldn't be owned.
- On The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, the cast spent an episode hunting for treasure hidden by Muriel's old boyfriend, a famous thief. Eventually, they open Muriel's locket and find a message that says "To Muriel: You are my greatest treasure." Muriel grouses, "That's what guys say when they're too cheap to spring for the good jewelry."
- Subverted on Top Gear: When a challenge ends with something other than success, the presenters try to claim the 'experience' of participating was worth more than actually winning it. Considering Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond are two of the most competitive men..... in the world.... you can imagine tongue is firmly in cheek when they say this.
- In the Season 13 Mallorca classic car rally, they arrived too late to be in contention, so they concluded by saying they didn't really care about the result since they'd fallen in love with their cars and had bought them for themselves.
- Xena: Warrior Princess once had Xena and Gabrielle, along with the master thief Autolycus, hunt for what proved to be the Ark of the Covenant. Finding the Ten Commandments inside, Xena and Gabrielle got the message; Autolycus didn't, finding prohibition against theft and covetousness to be rules no one could live by.
- The series finale of Better Off Ted had Veronica helping the founder of Veridian Dynamics search for a stash of corporate secrets he hid decades ago, so that he has enough leverage to keep from being forcibly retired. However, when they find the secrets it turns out to be things that have been public knowledge for years like "smoking causes cancer."
- The 60's era anti-war song "One Tin Soldier", where the inhabitants of a town slaughter the peaceful residents of a neighboring town in order to steal an unspecified "precious" treasure they own — a treasure which turns out to be a slab of stone with the words "Peace On Earth" inscribed on it.
Now the valley cried with anger
"Mount your horses, draw your swords!"
And they killed the mountain people, so they won their just rewards
Now they stood beside the treasure, on the mountain dark and red
Turned the stone and looked beneath it...
"Peace on Earth" was all it said...
Myths & Religion
- Truth in Television: After executing the pope, the prefect of Rome demanded that St. Lawrence hand over the wealth of the Church. Lawrence asked for three days to gather everything. At the conclusion of the three days, Lawrence presented to the prefect the poor and suffering and claimed that these were the treasures of the Church. The prefect was not pleased. He ended up having Lawrence cooked to death. Lawrence had the last laugh, however: he supposedly asked them to turn him over because he was done on that side. He's now the patron saint of students, chefs, tanners... and comedians.
- Adventures in Odyssey: The treasure hunt in the episode "The Treasure of LeMonde" leads to a cave with a box that contains "the greatest treasure" — a Bible. But that was okay because the one in the party who found it was a greedy jerk who left the girls tied up in an attic to get to it first.
- Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: This occurs during the pivotal scene where Brick confronts his father Big Daddy in the basement of their Southern mansion. In it there is a treasure trove of items that his father had bought over the course of his career as a businessman. Big Daddy discusses the value of these items, then goes on to say how his overall business empire is worth over 10 million dollars, and how he plans to one day turn it all over to his family to control. Brick, outraged at Big Daddy's love of personal wealth, destroys a great deal of these items to show it means nothing to him and that he only wanted his father's love. Big Daddy tells his son that he does love him and that he would do anything for him or give him anything he ever wanted; the reason he is giving all these things away is because he grew up in humble origins where his father was poor and all he ever left him before he died was a useless uniform from his time served in the Spanish-American War and that he will leave behind a more valuable legacy than his father left him. Brick argues that Big Daddy's father left him more than just an old uniform, he left behind many happy memories and love for his son and that maybe the reason he died laughing was because he was happy that he had his son by his side. The realization that the true gift he needed to leave behind for his family was love— and that he didn't resent his father for leaving behind nothing of value, since love was something that he always had— reduces Big Daddy to tears.
- Double Subverted in John Tartaglia's Imaginocean, a glow-in-the-dark theatrical production about three fish who are friends and go on a treasure hunt after finding a treasure map. When they get to the end and seemingly find no treasure, they decide that the adventure they had and their friendship was the real treasure. This unlocks the real treasure, which turns out to be... friendship bracelets.
- In Final Fantasy XII, after obtaining Raithwall's first Esper, Ashe describes it as "A treasure whose value is beyond measure" (or words to that effect). Balthier, who always thinks in monetary terms says "Call me old fashioned, but I was hoping for treasure whose value we could measure."
- Skies of Arcadia did this. Daccat sets up an entire dungeon filled with monsters, traps, twin fire-and-ice elemental spirits, and a complicated clockwork mechanism; Daccat's treasure is a single gold coin and a note that tells the heroes that they already have the greatest treasure, The Power of Friendship (the dungeon leading to the treasure chest depends on two teams working together and could not possibly be completed by a single hero). Then it's subverted when you find out that the coin's age and previous ownership makes it worth plenty of money.
- Daccat's message about friendship is also subverted in that neither group had the slightest clue that the other was present until they both reached the treasure, due to a long series of Contrived Coincidences that left each with half of the treasure map. They were just accidentally activating the Two-Keyed Locks for each other. Repeatedly.
- The plot of Sonic Riders ended in a variation on this when the treasure they raised a legendary city for and fought a nearly-all-powerful genie for turned out to be a single flying carpet. It's the one time Eggman technically wins: he wanted the legendary treasure, and he got it. Too bad it can't help him conquer the world...
- Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door:
- There is a treasure being discovered by Professor Frankly (though this happens offscreen). And the contents of a thousand year old treasure chest... A dried mushroom. Frankly is excited though because this implies a certain culture of food processing being present in that era.
- The legendary treasure behind the Thousand-Year Door itself, which is actually the soul of a demon that once ruled the world before being sealed away, making the treasure not so much "worthless" as "should never, ever be found in the first place".
- In Chapter 4 of Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, Flonne offers Laharl a gift if he helps her find her stolen pendant. The reward turns out to be "the opportunity to realize [his] kindness". Laharl is not amused.
- Early in Suikoden II, the party is recruited to help a stuck-in-a-rut innkeeper explore some dangerous ruins for what he claims is "a valuable treasure". The treasure (unsurprisingly) turns out to be some herbs that the innkeeper angrily throws away in disgust. Upon returning to the inn, in another unsurprising twist, his wife is stricken with a malady, and the nearest doctor is much too far away. Cue the hero returning to the ruins and grabbing the herbs, which heal the woman. Everyone learns something valuable except the soon-to-be primary antagonist.
- A family treasure variation is a side quest in Arcanum.
- Quackshot has a funny one. After spanning around the globe looking for the ultimate treasure, facing Dracula, a Tiger, squashing ceilings and etc., the treasure turns out to be a statue. Daisy was not amused... until the statue was dropped and broken, revealing a jeweled necklace inside.
- Dawn of Magic, Russian So Bad, It's Good action-RPG, has a hilarious one in the third act. One old man NPC tells you about island, full of treasure, and that he can transport you here for a fee. If you pay him, you will get transported to a small island with uranium mines. The two only ways to get out of here is to pay large sum of money, or participate in monotonous fetch quests, where you can die because of radioactivity. And once you get out of here, old man tells you, that if you want to visit Mine Island again, you can always pay him. What a bastard.
- In Fallout 2, there's a quest to find Typhon's "treasure", which turns out to be a bag full of bottlecaps. Granted, it would have been a big treasure in the first game and later in the Fallout timeline, but within the constraints of this game's timeframe, bottlecaps have been phased out as legal tender and are therefore worthless.
- A quest in Fallout: New Vegas asks the player to collect bottlecaps with a blue star on them, due to a legend about them being the key to some fabulous prize. People actually killed each other over these caps, especially one man described as being bloodthirsty for them. When and if the player gets fifty of them, they are directed to a back room full of worthless "deputy" badges, and the body and recorded last words of that man lamenting the people he'd killed to claim the prize. On the other hand, there's a significant supply of bottlecaps and the unique laser pistol of the ex-Star Hunter, which make a fairly decent reward.
- In the New Vegas add-on 'Dead Money' the Sierra Madre casino resort is meant to house a great treasure. It's both subverted and played straight. The vault houses a large amount of gold bars, but they're so heavy you can barely take any with you (without abusing the system to get around the problem) and the value of gold in a post apocalyptic waste land is far below what it would have been a couple centuries ago. However, as Elijah points out, the real treasure is the schematics to the resort's technology. The hard light holograms and molecular reconstruction technology it contains could allow anyone to easily conquer and rebuild the world in their own image.
- In Fallout 4, the fabled Treasures of Jamaica Plain turns out to be a time capsule containing a lot of pre-war items with the only thing you can actually take with you is an unique baseball bat with a chance of knocking your target flying. While most of your partners find the discovery ridiculous, some of them like Curie and Danse find the true value of the artifacts from the days long gone.
Codsworth: I imagine there's not many to view these items as "treasure" anymore these days.
- Eternal Sonata has a variation. The party does find a real pirate treasure of gold and jewels, but Salsa is most excited by a pirate's hat to replace the one that she lost when the party was swept into a river.
- In The Secret of Monkey Island, Guybrush searches for the Legendary Lost Treasure of Mêlée Island™ as part of his pirate initiation trials. When he finds it, all that's there is an And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt.
- Subverted in The Last Train To Blue Moon Canyon, when Nancy's search for a lost gold mine turns up nothing but an old letter. Which was written by Abraham Lincoln and is therefore worth a fortune as an historical document.
- Subverted as well in Curse of Blackmoor Manor; the fabled Penvellyn treasure turns out to be a hunk of rock, albeit one that's been carefully preserved by the family for centuries due to their medieval ancestors believing it was the Philosopher's Stone. Although if the "rock" is indeed a meteorite, and documentation can be found for a Penvellyn ancestor having witnessed its fall, it'd probably fetch many thousands of pounds from a collector.
- In Ni no Kuni, this is the result of the The Greatest Treasure of All quest. You find a tombstone stating that the greatest treasure is "a life spent with friends." Drippy comments that this is a bit pretentious, and later that it's "a load of old rubbish."
- In Star Trek Online, the Breen story arc features Breen warlord Thot Trel and his quest for a Preserver archive hidden in the Orelius sector. He's under the impression that it is a cache of powerful ancient weapons. The player character reaches it first and discovers that it's a library and cryogenic vault containing preserved Preservers. Thot Trel flies into a towering rage when he, too, finds out. This is partly a nod to the Next Generation episode "The Chase."
- In Red Dead Redemption, John is forced to help a character named Seth find a treasure he's been looking a long time to find, one that he's sacrificed everything (including his sanity) for. The treasure hunt takes several in-game missions to complete, and when Seth finally opens the chest he's been looking for for years, he finds a wooden eye.
- And then it's subverted if John finds the REAL treasure chest in the basement, with the same geographical coordinates as the chest on the second floor. Seth looked at the map the wrong way - namely, up.
- Played with by Undertale: one room, unlocked by playing a specific song on a piano, contains a red sphere touted as a "legendary artifact". However, you cannot take it, as the game states that you're "carrying too many dogs". Lo and behold, you now have an item called an "Annoying Dog" in your inventory; "Use" or drop the dog, and it floats up to the pedestal, "absorbs" the artifact, and just leaves, and no one ever mentions it again. The dog is replaced in the inventory by an item called "Dog Residue", whose only function is to fill the inventory with more Dog Residue (which is just random items such as dirty dishes and unfinished jigsaw puzzles, but sometimes a healing item called Dog Salad).
- Subverted when one realises that you know have infinite items to sell to Temmie and an infinitely renewable healing source. All it takes is patience and you'll eventually be able to get the Purposefully Overpowered Temmie Armor for almost no effort.
- In the Henry Stickmin Series game Infiltrating the Airship, one of the scenarios involves Henry stealing a safe from the airship, which turns out to contain nothing but a teddy bear.
- This can happen entirely by accident in a randomizer-style Game Mod. Unless Developers' Foresight is in play to prevent the game from being Unwinnable by Mistake, it's possible that the Ultimate Treasure turns out to be a handful of Money for Nothing.
- Paul Luther of Eternal Darkness has traveled to Oublie Cathedral to see a holy relic, the Hand of Jude. However, circumstances inside suggest, and a book later confirms, that it and other similar relics are fabrications meant to lure unsuspecting believers to the cathedral to be slaughtered by a cult operating inside.
- Subverted in this Sluggy Freelance B Side Comic. The "pirate treasure" Torg and Riff dig up turns out to just be a plaque saying, "Life's real treasure is friendship." Torg and Riff are pissed and walk away. Then, in the last panel, the pirate returns for his gold, gloating, "They never look under the sign!"
- This happens to the pirates in the German webcomic NICHTLUSTIG.
"Now, if you ask where the great treasure is, look deep inside yourself and you will find it within the friendships and the experiences that you have gained throughout the long search."
"Better than Gold."
- The Adventures of Dr. McNinja thoroughly zig-zags this one with the "Death Volley" arc. First, Doc tries to stop a presumed Inocktek Doomsday Device from activating. He fails, but instead of destroying the world, the device dispenses a massive tome containing all the secrets of the advanced Inocktek civilization—a treasure trove of archeological knowledge. But when Doc takes the book to a scientist to be analyzed, all the information turns out to be worthless. Then, in The Stinger for the chapter, it's revealed that one of the villains stole the real copy of that book, right from under Doc's nose, and left the worthless fake in its place.
- Katamari: When Sherman mentions that there's a treasure at the top of Frosty Peak, Ace immediately starts fantasizing about it being some kind of Upgrade Artifact that'll make him "the coolest guy in the universe, and everyone will love me, and all the hotties will want my number, and I'll get giant biceps like a buff gorilla." Naturally, he isn't pleased when it turns out to be "one of those dumb moral treasures". This is then subverted when Opeo finds exactly what Ace was looking for.
- Oglaf parodies this trope in "Lair of the Trapmaster".
- We Are Our Avatars: Upon finding the treasure chests on the Island of Rare Animals, Elizabeth opens the chests with a lockpick and it turns they are empty. Gaimon is relieved as he can't spend the money on anything because he would abandon his friends.
[Elizabeth opens the chests Mana had retrieved from a very tall pillar with a lockpick]
Gaimon: Oh, thank you a million times, miss!
[Gaimon opens the chest now that it is unlocked]
[Gaimon looks shocked and the others look inside the chest]
Gaimon: ...they are empty.
Elizabeth: ...Huh. That's...quite a surprise.
Gaimon: Actually... I have thought about this before... it was a possibility, but... I always try not to think about it too much...
[Gaimon begins to tear up]
[Elizabeth consolingly pats Gaimon on the fro]
[Gaimon sobs for quite a while]
Gaimon: But... I suppose... this is better this way, maybe...
Elizabeth: Why is that?
Gaimon: What... what would I do with this treasure anyway?
Elizabeth: ...That is a good question. I don't suppose you could buy a ship off of this island anyways.
Joseph: A Good question, Gaimon. Maybe the real treasure is the time you spent with your new friends?
Gaimon: I'd never want to leave this place. I couldn't just abandon my friends.
Elizabeth: I'm sure they'd feel the same way.
[Elizabeth smiles innocently]
- An episode of the 90s Babar TV series has much ado about an apparently valuable object of Retaxas' that goes missing. There are criminals and Arthur getting arrested and Zephir kidnapped. Then, at the end, the lovable sidekick criminal reveals that the object itself has no monetary value; Arthur, Zephir, and the criminal mastermind are not amused. Then it turns out to be Retaxas' beloved childhood music box, much to the rhino king's embarrassment.
- This is the ultimate result of the quest for Shiver Me Timbear's pirate treasure chest in Care Bears: Welcome to Care-a-Lot. Grumpy Bear is not pleased at first.
- Part of the Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers episode "The Last Leprechaun" revolves around obtaining Darby Spree's magic pot of gold this way.
- In a fantasy-dream episode of Darkwing Duck, Gosalyn hates studying for a history test and fantasizes about going on a quest for the magical Fountain of Knowledge with her favorite comic-book hero. After a long quest, many bad jokes, and a climactic confrontation with a Big Bad, she discovers the Fountain is ... a cardboard prop. As the villain said, "What? You thought you could drink from a fountain and get smarter?" It turns out that the stuff she learned in the quest was what she needed to learn for her history test.
- A Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines episode had Muttley recovering a treasure chest, only for Dick Dastardly posing as a tax collector who confiscates it. Dastardly attempts to make some purchases with it, but when he opens the chest, he discovers it's full of nothing but dog biscuits.
- In Donkey Kong Country episode 'Buried Treasure', it's revealed that the titular buried treasure that the cast has been fighting over is actually a small barrel full of bananas that Donkey Kong hid while playing pirates as a child. Bananas that have now spoiled with age.
- On Dragon Tales, Emmy, Max and the dragon friends join Captain Scaliwag of the skies to find treasure, which turns out to be some pictures he drew as a little boy.
- DuckTales used this trope fairly often (not surprising considering the wealthy/avaricious nature of the main character).
- In the Valentine's Day special, Scrooge is disappointed to find that a chest in some sunken Grecian ruins purportedly containing "the greatest treasure" has nothing in it but a Greek word for "love" written on the bottom (for the record, it's philia, as in dispassionate, platonic love).
- In one episode Scrooge went off to find the fountain of youth, when he does find it the fountain doesn't really make him young, just his reflection.
- On Ella the Elephant, the treasure of "Treasure Hunters" is note a about friendship being the greatest treasure of all, signed by the kids' parents. Belinda's really annoyed at first, but then they all agree that it's a great treasure.
- An episode of Family Guy has Peter discover that a placemat at a local restaurant, supposedly based on a real treasure map, actually does correspond to real clues, and ends up drawing the whole town into a mad hunt for the treasure, which eventually fizzles out. Peter and Lois eventually realize that the treasure is hidden at the Drunken Clam, the oldest pub in Quahog, and find a small chest hidden behind a photo... only for the "treasure" turn out to be a promotional stunt by the restaurant from the opening, and on top of that, it was a coupon for a free meal that expired in 2006.
- The Franklin and Friends special Polar Explorer features Great Aunt Harriet's special treasure in the Antarctic, which turns out to be an extremely sparkly and picturesque lake that discovered.
- Parodied when a space pirate's ship has been shot and is spinning out of control; before it blows up the captain is seen morosely looking out a port window and saying "Too late do I realize that me children are me only real treasures".
- Also suggested by one of the monks trying to find God by looking through a telescope (in the same episode, oddly enough). "Maybe the love that this 'Fry' feels for his friend is God." "Oh, how convenient! An explanation for God that doesn't involve looking through a giant telescope. Get back to work!"
- An episode of Gadget Boy & Heather has Spydra stealing the "most priceless treasure in the desert" that an emir planned to give to his son. It turned out to be a bottle of water, which would have been a valuable lesson for the boy.
- Gargoyles featured the hunt for Merlin's journals... which proved to be ordinary journals, not deep, dark mystic secrets. MacBeth is disappointed to find no powerful spells, but the Gargoyles — particularly the ones that had just learned the advantages of learning to read — understood their historical value. MacBeth, of course, subverts his role as the villain: He understands their value too (and in fact, already has a copy), and lets the Gargoyles leave with them once he learns they don't have any spells.
- Goof Troop, "Slightly Dinghy." Max wanted to get a quarter to buy a new video game, and after failing to find one in the couch, he talks PJ into asking Pete to take them fishing to find the treasure of the lake. The lake treasure turns out to be worth "less than nothing" in the words of a local reporter. Max is not harmed by this, because Goofy already found a quarter (which the audience was already aware of). PJ, who didn't want to come in the first place, however, had to faint.
- "Help! It's The Hair Bear Bunch!", episode "Gobs of Gabaloons": the eponymous three bears palm off on zookeeper Peevly a supposed treasure map, which turns out to reveal the location of a horde of gold coins; unfortunately for Peevly, the coins are Ptomainian Gabaloons, which due to a treaty between America and Ptomania cannot be spent in the USA and must be returned to Ptomania, unspent; but Peevly doesn't discover this before running up a huge debt against the treasure; he comes badly unstuck when the Ptomanian ambassador arrives expecting to collect it.
- In "Big Bug Island" on Jake And The Neverland Pirates, Captain Hook is thrilled at the idea of a golden caterpillar that will lead him to treasure and even agrees to an Enemy Mine with the protagonists of the show to find it. The treasure turns out to be the joy of seeing the golden butterfly, which delights Jake, his team, and Hook's minions, but aggravates Hook.
- Played straight in "The Treasure Hunt" episode of of Jem. Jem's "Starlight Girls" face off with Pizzazz's "Misfit" girls over a treasure at the end of a rich man's contest. The prize turns out to be books, much to Pizzazz's dismay. These were rare, leather bound, first editions that any serious book collector would kill for - but the only serious collector in this universe was the rich man that held the contest.
- In the Julius Jr. episode Clancy, Be Careful, the gang helps Diamondbeard find treasure from a map he's found. It turns out that the treasure was all the stuff that belonged to him when he was a baby, because the treasure was his mom's treasure.
- In the Littlest Pet Shop (2012) episode "The Treasure of Henrietta Twombly", a greedy treasure hunter hears a rumor that Mrs. Twombly's ancestor had buried treasure, then practically tears the pet shop apart trying to find it. When the treasure chest is finally found, it contains pet kibble, since Henrietta loved animals. Disappointed that there were no gold or jewels, the treasure hunter leaves. Blythe digs through the kibble and finds a book containing Henrietta's secret pet food recipes, thought to have been lost to history. Blythe and Mrs. Twombly realize they could probably make a pretty profit with it.
- In the My Little Pony 'n Friends episode "The Magic Coins", after their ill-thought out wishes made on the coins cause trouble, the ponies turn to the coins' crotchety creator, Niblick the troll, for help. Niblick refuses to help unless they bring him a treasure of equal or greater value than that of the coins. The ponies risk their necks to bring him three treasures, but Niblick rejects them all. Just as things look hopeless, Megan thinks to use the last of the coins to wish for a friend for Niblick, and despite the Odd Couple dynamic between the two, they hit it off and Niblick agrees to help.
- In one animated Peanuts special, You're a Good Sport, Charlie Brown, Charlie Brown ends up competing in a motocross race with the promise of Pro Bowl tickets as the grand prize. Charlie Brown, much to the surprise of everyone, ends up winning, but in true Peanuts fashion, they couldn't get the Pro Bowl tickets so they tried to compensate by giving him a gift certificate for five free haircuts. The problem? His dad is a barber, plus he doesn't have that much hair to cut anyway.
- King Julien anticipates this trope on The Penguins of Madagascar after hearing about a treasure. "This is real treasure, right? Not one of those 'friendship is the greatest treasure of all' deals? Because you can't trade friendship for, you know, the goods and the services."
- Parodied in the Phineas and Ferb episode "The Ballad of Badbeard", where Phineas, Ferb and their friends try to find the treasure of Badbeard the pirate, and eventually end up lost in a cave. Oh, and the actual treasure? Fake beards.
Baljeet: Perhaps the real treasure is true friendship, and the spirit of adventure.
Phineas: Nah, there it is over there. (points to a door with a big red "X" on it) X marks the spot!
- Seen on Recess, when "the treasure of Third Street School" turns out to be a collection of beloved toys left behind by former students (one of whom happens to be the principal of their school). However, it's not quite as Anvilicious as it sounds on the surface — the hiders of the treasure were, at the time, children themselves, who really would find such things precious, and really would be likely to play an elaborate game by "hiding" it as though it were treasure. (Who didn't do similar things as a child?)
- An episode of The Replacements did a subversion of this, where escaping a trap required discovering the 'real' treasure, knowledge. The trick was, there actually were piles of gold and jewels waiting for whoever solved the puzzle, and the main characters happened to miss the reveal — a one-off gag character came in time to grab it, though.
- Used in an Indiana Jones spoof in Tiny Toon Adventures, in which "Pasadena Jones" (Buster) had gone through all the usual Indy adventures to get to a treasure chest purportedly containing "the Secret of Life", which turned out to contain Babs, Plucky and Hamton - the secret of life is friendship. He wasn't impressed: "In the sequel, I'm going after some gold."
- The Simpsons:
- Spoofed in "Bart to the Future". Marge and Homer go out to hunt for Lincoln's Gold. They eventually find a chest and inside it is a sheet of paper saying "my gold is in the heart of every American". Marge thinks it's sweet. Homer thinks it's a con.
- Also subverted in another episode. Homer, as a vigilante leader, has caught a notorious cat burglar. The burglar reveals that he has a treasure hidden, and the entire town rushes off to solve his riddle and dig it up. When they find it, there is only a note inside, revealing that it was a ruse to distract everyone while the burglar escaped from prison.
- In true Springfield fashion, they refuse to believe the note and keep digging until the hole is too big to climb out.
- "Dig UP stupid!"
- When Homer and Mr. Burns are in the cabin buried by an avalanche, Carl suggests that maybe "the cabin" they were supposed to find was that special place in their hearts that they go to when they work together. Lenny points out that Burns had promised there would be sandwiches there though...
- One episode of South Park features the main characters being stuck in a cave together because they felt sorry for Al Gore (It Makes Sense in Context). Cartman finds what he thinks is treasure, and proceeds to eat it so he can move it out of the cave once they're rescued without having to tell the others. Unfortunately for Cartman, the treasure was fake gold as a part of a tourist exhibit, meaning he put himself through horrible pain for plastic that's only worth about 18 dollars.
- Filmation's animated version of the novel Tarzan and the Forbidden City, described above.
- Geraldo Rivera was going to find out what was in Al Capone's vault and furiously hyped up the event. When he finally opened it, all it contained were a couple of glass bottles and a piece of scrap paper.