It is 30 years since the artist Kit Williams ventured out into the night to bury his golden hare in a park in Bedfordshire.
The jewelled amulet was worth a relatively trifling £5,000, yet the quest to unearth it, by solving a series of visual clues contained in Williams's book Masquerade, captured the imagination of millions and made its author a global publishing sensation.
But although it was controversially discovered in October 1982 from under the noses of two Manchester physics teachers who had successfully cracked the code, the mystery of the golden hare continues to intrigue.
Breaking his decades-long silence on the subject, the artist said he does not know the whereabouts of the artefact which was eventually sold to an anonymous overseas bidder at a Sotheby's auction in 1988 for £31,900.
He has added his voice to mounting calls for the owner of the amulet to reveal themselves and allow the hare to go on public display. "I don't think it is in the country... I suspect it has gone for ever," the artist told The Independent yesterday.
Physicists Mike Barker and John Rousseau had arrived at the correct solution to Williams's puzzle but they were beaten to the treasure by Ken Thomas, whose business partner was the boyfriend of Williams's former girlfriend.
The artist yesterday said he was still puzzled as to how his ex-girlfriend might have known the secret, but believes the most likely answer was that she recalled him marking the ground with a magnet during a preparatory visit to Ampthill Park in Bedfordshire, where he had buried the hare close to a cross dedicated to Catherine of Aragon. It was here, "somewhere in the middle of England that was a bit boring", at the furthest point cast by the shadow of the monument at noon on the Vernal equinox, that the amulet was eventually found.
Williams was overwhelmed by the attention his book generated. He was bombarded with thousands of letters and visitors to his Gloucestershire home at the height of the hunt and has preferred to concentrate on painting since. "I did not feel happy in that celebrity role. I had other things that I wanted to do but people wanted me to go on television and go to America but it did not really feel like me," he said.
Despite the enthusiasm of his publisher Tom Maschler of Jonathan Cape, Williams really expected to sell the plates for the book as individual oil paintings and was astonished when it went on to sell nearly a million copies. He and University Challenge host Bamber Gascoigne, who acted as celebrity witness, set out to bury the hare with some trepidation. "We thought we only have to be tapped on the shoulder by a policeman and that would blow the whole gaff. We just thought it was fun," he said. "It was right for the times and probably would be impossible now in the age of the internet. In those days there was no Lottery and the Daily Mirror had not even started doing bingo. Money things just didn't happen.
"The fact was that it was really there buried in the cold, wet earth."
The book has been out of print for 20 years yet interest in Masquerade remains strong. The solution to the puzzle was obtained by deciphering the codes: "Catherine's long finger over shadows earth buried yellow amulet midday points the hour in light of equinox look you" and the acrostic "close by Ampthill" from the 16 paintings contained within the book.