Seven Chinese goldbars  from the 1930s bear encrypted inscriptions that have never been deciphered. The provenance of these goldbars is a mystery, too.

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In 1996 the curator of a US museum contacted the International Association for Cryptologic Research (IACR) and asked for help with a set of unsolved cryptograms. As it seems, this museum curator didn’t know that the IACR rarely deals with old ciphers, as it focusses on computer-based cryptology. It might have been better to contact the scientific magazine Cryptologia, which has its focus on the history of encryption, or the American Cryptogram Association (ACA). Today Klausis Krypto Kolumne would be the best choice for a cryptogram like this, but this blog didn’t exist back then.


The goldbar mystery

The cryptograms in question are inscribed on seven Chinese goldbars. The details about this mystery are given on a IACR web page prepared by former IACR president Kevin McCurley. McCurley writes:

The seven gold bars were allegedly issued to a General Wang in Shanghai, China, in 1933. These gold bars appear to represent metal certificates related to a bank deposit with a U.S. Bank. The gold bars themselves have pictures, Chinese writing, some form of script writing, and cryptograms in latin letters.

Not surprisingly, there is a dispute concerning the validity of the claim for the deposit. It may help to resolve the dispute if someone can decipher the cryptograms on the bars. Nobody has yet put for the a theory as to their meaning. I am also unable to recognize the script writing. The Chinese writing has been translated, and discusses a transaction in excess of $300,000,000. It also refers to these gold bars which weigh a total of 1.8 kilograms.

Here are photographs of the goldbars:








The inscriptions contain 16 encrypted lines, some of which are repeated:

MVERZRLQDBHQ			length 12
VIOHIKNNGUAB			length 12
GKJFHYXODIE			length 11
ZUQUPNZN			length 8

As far as I know, nobody has ever found out what these lines mean.


Little is known

McCurley’s article seems to be the only source of information available about the Chinese goldbar cryptograms. This mystery is mentioned on many websites and top 10 unsolved ciphers lists, but noone seems to know more than is mentioned on the IACR page. At least, this article names two contact persons – some Bin J. Tao and a lawyer named Peter Bisno, both located in California. No email or web addresses are given (which was not unusual back in 1996). Two fax numbers are listed, but the inquiries I sent to both of them were never replied. Nick Pelling, who contacted Peter Bisno by email (with an address he had found somewhere else) was a little more successful. He received the following note: “We no longer represent the client and closed our file a long time ago. We have no further information. Sorry.”

Blog reader roel pointed me to a Chinese newspaper article, which is now offline. I couldn’t read it, as I don’t speak Chinese, but according to some hints from my readers, the article told more or less the same story as the IACR website.

Nick Pelling pointed out that the airplane shown on one of the goldbars looks quite modern for the alleged issuing year 1933.


Can a reader identify this aircraft? Did this model already exist in 1933?

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Kommentare (10)

  1. #1 Jan
    12. Februar 2017

    Regarding the plane:

    Seems to be a pretty common shape for the 30ies.

  2. #2 schorsch
    13. Februar 2017

    “The curator of a museum” – Whow, what a weak legend…

    Did you already try to contact one of the persons whose names are given in the iacr-article?

  3. #3 Nick Pelling
    13. Februar 2017

    Jan: as I recall, the problem I raised was that the Boeing 247 didn’t fly out of America until 1934, and yet the date on the gold bar is 1933.

  4. #4 schorsch
    13. Februar 2017

    Nick: Your assumption suggests, that the bars have been designed and stamped in China. But the legend only says, that the bars have been “issued to a General Wang in Shanghai”.

    But they might as well have been casted in the USA and sent to china to support Mr. Wang’s heroic fight against the communists, which were a strong threat to the republic even in 1933.

  5. #5 Mattes
    13. Februar 2017

    Regarding the plane: Could be a Douglas DC1. Had its first flight in 1933.

  6. #6 Nick Pelling
    14. Februar 2017

    There was only ever a single DC-1 made, and as I recall it never flew outside the US. The DC-2 was launched in 1934 (like the Boeing 247), which was also a year too late. Neither the DC-1 nor the DC-2 have a door above the wing.

    The most famous plane that fits the bill was a Boeing 247-D that “belonged to one of the most successful Nationalist generals, the fiercely anti-Communist, twenty-four year-old warlord Chang Hsueh-liang”. This plane had a huge impact and significance on the history of the time, and as such is precisely the kind of thing I would expect to see honoured on a (somewhat ceremonial) gold bar. See Anton Alipov’s comment here:

    However, Chang acquired his plane in 1935, which seems at odds with the dating on the gold bars. So that’s as far as we can go with this for the moment, I suspect. 😐

  7. #7 Rich SantaColoma
    15. Februar 2017

    I would agree with Nick’s opinion, “… I’d say that this looks like a post-WW2 fake (and probably even from the early-to-mid 1950s), trying to make something look as though it had been made in the 1930s, but not quite getting it right.”

    Maybe made earlier, but still, fake. Why? I can guess that clouding the provenance of any gold might help cover any unscrupulous sourcing… I mean, maybe the depositors simply did not want the gold traceable. Any recognizable names, banks, etc., would be quickly traced… but make it indecipherable gibberish, and it is only a lump of gold, with no real past.

    It’s probably just stolen gold, disguised.

  8. #8 Elmar Vogt
    17. März 2017

    Aside of the questionable plane — IIUC 300,000,000US$ would have been 1% of the US’ tax revenue of 1933. Is it conceivable that such a tremenduous sum would simply have been lost or forgotten somewhere?
    And even when disregarding the questionable provenance of the story, the fotos of the gold bars don’t look like gold at all to me. (If you want to convince me otherwise, I can provide you with a mailing address to send gold bars in all sizes. ;-)) I also don’t see how the images would have been transferred onto the bars — it’s certainly not stamped, it doesn’t look like engravings.
    Somebody could have made a cast, but that would add another layer of detours to an already ridiculuously convoluted method — making a cast to write a ciphertext onto a gold bar (!) to authenticate (?) the owner of a huge sum of money lying somewhere else?
    And what’s the point? You walk up to the bank to say “I’m the one with claims to 300 mill US$ in gold in your account, this gold bar which only I can decipher says so”?

  9. #9 Rich SantaColoma
    27. Juni 2017

    I was poking around the web, and came across this (hoax?), called “Yamashita’s Gold”:'s_gold

    Well treasure and gold claims, many of which are of course myths and hoaxes, abound. Nonetheless, these two seemed to mesh a bit, somehow, and so I put the link here for reader’s interest.

  10. #10 Bret Bowen
    10. September 2020

    First, let me point out an error in the list above. The line:
    UGMNCBXCFLDBEY length 14
    should be:
    UGMNCBXCFLDBY length 13

    Now, if you take all 16 lines and do a frequency analysis you should find that there are exactly ten of every letter of the alphabet, except the letters I,O,S and T of which there are 13, 9, 11 and 9, respectively.

    So, it appears that someone made a big effort to make sure that there were exactly 10 of each letter, and maybe intentionally added three more of the letter I, and one more S, and then removed an O and a T. So, perhaps the focus should be on these four letters.