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(September 8,1857) The amazing tale of the S. S. Central America, laden with California gold, Sunk in a hurricane, found and successfully salvaged, while today investors and numismatic scholars have only a coffee-table book to show for it.
(September 8,1857) The United States Mail Steamship “Central America” left Havana, Cuba, on the last leg of its journey carrying 477 passengers and 101 crew members to New York. Also on board was a fortune in gold, amounting to some 21 tons consisting of a mixture of gold coins from the newly-established San Francisco Mint, plus ingot, bars, and coins of private manufacture, and hundred of pounds of raw nuggets and gold dust, all from the California goldfields.

By Thursday, September 10th, a merchant captain on board recorded that “It blew a perfect hurricane, and the sea ran mountains high” over the 280-foot long paddlewheeler. The storm persisted, ever more violently, and by that Saturday it was evident to passengers and crew that the ship, battered and filling with water, was going to sink. At 8:00 that evening, the ship went down. 325 people died, and all the gold aboard went down with the ship, about 200 miles off the coast of Carolina.

The whole story of the ship, its passengers, the rescue of 143 people, the final days on board, and its recovery in the 1980’s, is told in fascinating detail in Gary Kinder’s book “Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998). I recommend it highly as a great adventure story.

For over 130 years the wreck of the “Central America” lay undisturbed on the ocean floor, some 8000 feet below sea level. The sinking was of public record in 1857; indeed the loss of life at that time amounted to the largest peacetime maritime disaster in history. The loss of the 21 tons of gold in the New York markets caused a mini-panic in 1857, as this represented a considerable number of fortunes at that time.

In the 1980’s a young engineer named Tommy Thompson became interested in the final resting place of the “Central America” and the possibility of finding and recovering its treasure. Through diligent historic research, he narrowed down the area of the ocean floor where the ship might lie, and with the formation of the Columbus-America Discovery Group, he set out to do what had not been done before: maintain a viable exploration presence at these amazing depths, observe and chart the ocean floor through underwater robotics with an accuracy and flexibility previously unknown even to the U.S. Navy.

Thompson’s audacious dream of finding and recovering the “Central America” became a reality – in 1989 the first part of he treasure was recovered and brought into port in Norfolk, Virginia. How this was all accomplished, the pioneering efforts in undersea work that was involved, the millions of dollars that had to be raised to undertake this effort, and the personal efforts and ingenuity of Thompson and his crews I won’t go into here. Kinder’s book should definitely be read if this is of interest to you.

The amazing story to tell is that now, nearly ten years later, none of the treasure has been sold or even publicly displayed, and the investors in Columbus-America Discovery Group have yet to see a dime for the millions they invested as long as twelve years ago.

Since the recovery of the treasure (or the significant portion which has been so far recovered), the battles in land-locked courtrooms involving insurance companies claiming losses from 1857, competing auction houses claiming rights to the sale of the artifacts, and disgruntled investors seeking some way to gracefully get repaid some of their money, threaten to outweigh the drama of the undersea recovery itself.

The April 12th edition of “Coin World” magazine reports that Christie’s auction house in New York has “reportedly sued the salvors and owners of 92 percent of the treasure, Columbus-America Discovery Group (CADG) for allegedly defaulting on an agreement in which Christie’s loaned $35 million to CADG against the value of the treasure recovered from the wreck.”

The article under Paul Gilkes’ byline goes on to state that “a source indicates that not only is the suit filed under seal, there is no public documentation on the court docket being kept showing the suit even exists.”

It also seems from this latest news that the first of the “Central America” treasure to be publicly displayed and sold may be that small fraction which CADG had to share with the insurance companies who claimed in court that they suffered losses in the 1857 wreck and are, 130 years later, entitled to a share of the treasure which Thompson, CADG, and their crews brought to the surface.

Speculation is that Sotheby’s is in the running to sell the insurers’ portion of the treasure by auction, possibly as early as this fall.

Controversy has run rampant over CADG and Tommy Thompson’s total secretiveness about the actual contents of the treasure, particularly the rare numismatic items whose presence will certainly change the market values for these coins and ingots. The “Central America” treasure represents an enormous addition of these scarce California pioneer items into the known population, and until an inventory is made public, uncertainty will dominate this area of the numismatic market.

Of course, the failure to promptly make public and bring to market this fantastic treasure while the story is still relatively ‘fresh’ and newsworthy has to rank as one of the great marketing failures of our time. The successful marketing of this treasure, CADG seems not to realize, would involve an extraordinary public relations effort. Thousands of new collector/buyer/enthusiasts have to be motivated to spend tens and hundreds of millions of dollars to own a tangible souvenir of this great story.

But, as we learned from Humphrey Bogart in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” the finding of gold is just the start of the story, and strange things can happen to the men who once joined together as partners to seek it.

The coffee-table book mentioned earlier? Aptly enough, it’s entitled “America’s Lost Treasure” by Tommy Thompson.


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