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For sale: 180 acres from the great gold nugget hoax of 2010

180 acres of forest land that was at the heart of a 2010 hoax involving a giant gold nugget is listed for sale following the default of the man who claimed to have found the nugget.
Washington, Nevada County CA

An invitation to investors by the previous owner of 180 acres of forest land in the small Gold Rush-era community of Washington, California suggested the discovery of a 9-pound gold nugget on the property was just "the tip of the iceberg."

The marketing campaign ultimately collapsed with the revelation of a simple truth: The gold nugget had actually been unearthed in Australia in 1987.

The property is now listed for sale without the promise of incalculable wealth underground.

The great gold nugget hoax of 2010 began in April with property owner James Saunders Grill, using the pseudonym Jim Sanders, describing in detail to the Union Newspaper how he found the nugget on his property.

"If I get a mining operation going, we'd have an industry here," Grill told the reporter.

For the record, veteran Grass Valley prospector Tom Nicholas was the first person to publicly express doubt about the discovery in an interview with News10 a week after the article appeared in the Union.

"I thought it was bogus. Absolutely," Nicholas recalled in a follow-up interview on Thursday.

Nicholas, an expert with ground-penetrating radar, said Grill's description of the event didn't ring true.

Despite scattered skepticism, the giant gold nugget was offered for auction the following spring by Holabird-Kagin Americana, which presented it as the largest surviving specimen from California's Gold Country.

The nugget sold for $470,000 on March 16, 2011, at the Sacramento Convention Center.

The excitement generated by the auction only added more energy to the online sales pitch for the property where the nugget was supposedly discovered, which was being called the Lost Scotchman Mine.

"Be a part of the new gold rush!" the website challenged investors, calling the nugget the "Whopper."

The offering estimated the value of gold, timber and aggregates on the property at over $105 million and boasted of the broad media coverage the giant gold nugget had received.

Ironically, the worldwide publicity turned out to be the scheme's downfall.

Two months after the auction, a pair of Australian prospectors contacted News10 to say that they had actually unearthed the nugget in Victoria's Golden Triangle in 1987.

"I'd just like to set the record straight because there are people being defrauded here," said Murray Cox in a Skype interview on June 4, 2011.

Cox and his partner Reg Wilson said they had found the nugget in a farm field north of Melbourne and they produced newspaper articles and photographs documenting the discovery.

Fred Holabird, who had auctioned off the nugget in Sacramento, initially dismissed the Australians' claim, but eventually conceded he had been the victim of a hoax after being presented with detailed photographs from the 1987 discovery.

Faced with the embarrassing revelation, Holabird-Kagin Americana refunded the winning bidder's money and awarded the nugget to the second-highest bidder for an undisclosed amount and swore all parties to secrecy, including Grill.

No criminal charges were ever pursued.

Grill, who has not granted a media interview since the 2010 newspaper article announcing his "discovery," responded by email to a request from News10.

"Love to tell my side of the story, but I am bound by a confidentiality agreement with Holabird-Kagin Americana." Grill wrote. "If anything changes, I'll talk to you."

The gold nugget hoax now appears to have been part of a desperate attempt by Grill to keep his 180-acre property following a long, expensive and ultimately unsuccessful fight with the US Forest Service to gain road access to the rugged land, surrounded on three sides by national forest.

Nevada County records show Grill lost the property to foreclosure a year after the hoax was revealed, with a private party lender from Santa Rosa taking possession in December 2012.

The property at 12840 Scotchman Falls Road is now being offered for sale by the lender, minus the extravagant claims about the potential value of the minerals lying beneath the surface.

The asking price: A relatively modest $590,000.