The story of James Howells is, for better or worse, little known outside of the United Kingdom. But it is one of the most fascinating stories about lost cryptocurrency, up there with the woman that bought a house with the crypto her ex gifted to her.
The tragic incident that cost Howells a fortune took place in August 2013 when his partner threw away a hard disk containing 8,000 bitcoins that Howells had mined during the currency’s early days. Even though Howells realised that something was amiss, he initially did not notice the unfortunate event.
A couple of months later, a BBC article about a Norwegian man that bought a house with recovered bitcoin prompted Howells to check for the hard drive that presumably contained his coins. Alas, the hard drive he found was the wrong one.
What ensued was a tragicomical epos lasting till this day as Howells, to no avail, tries to convince the city council of his hometown of Newport to let him dig through the landfill where the hard drive has been dumped. Initially, he tried to reason with the officials, who questioned whether the hard drive would even be functional after being dug below ground. Howells studied the technology behind it and found that, in all likelihood, it is.
He even found a company that would be tasked with digging through the more than 40,000 tonnes of ground, expected to take several months as they attempt to recover the fortune. But in spite of Bitcoin’s price rising to five-figure valuations and Howells offering the city a 25% cut of the recovered crypto, the officials did not yield. To add insult to injury, the internet was not sympathetic to his situation after The Guardian reported about his Sisyphean task to get the city to let him dig for his virtual pot of gold. Howells earned himself mostly scorn and schadenfreude, as people blamed him for being the architect of his own misfortune and not caring about a backup of his private keys.
Howells, a libertarian at heart and an early Bitcoin believer—he had even been active in the same forums as Satoshi Nakamoto—deep down, seems to realise the futility and hopelessness of his task. After eight years of being compelled to hodl his coins, his portfolio value, which he can check on an app, has grown to over $700 million AUD.
Still, one cannot blame him for continuing to fight for his lost fortune. When a reporter of the New Yorker recently visited him to write an editorial piece about Howell’s life story, Howell had another appeal to launch a recovery mission slapped down by local council officials. He vowed to fight on, as he expects the value of Bitcoin to only go up over the next few years, hoping that the potential monetary gain would motivate authorities to cede to his demands. “I still hope and feel it can be done,” he told me. And as long as I feel that I will keep trying. Does that make sense?”, he said.