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Treasure coins thrill many collectors

There are few things more exciting than the discovery of a treasure on a ship lost at sea. Of course there is always an interesting story and usually when a ship is involved the number of coins being recovered is large and dramatic in their impact.

With each improvement in technology it becomes increasingly possible to locate and recover ships lost hundreds of years ago along with their cargo. The number of vessels lost at sea that carried large numbers of U.S. coins compared to others such as Spanish treasure fleet losses is actually quite small. Even though thousands of ships have been recorded as lost only a relatively small number carried any significant numbers of coins and only a few of that small number would have had coins of the United States in their holds as they vanished beneath the waves. That can make the recovery of any significant numbers of U.S. coins an activity where the odds are probably lower than finding the classic needle in a haystack. That said, a few have been found and they are stories well worth repeating.

Perhaps the largest treasure from the California Gold Rush era was carried out of the Havana harbor on Sept. 7, 1857. Simply getting to Havana had been an adventure as at the time the route for coins from San Francisco involved going from San Francisco to Panama before crossing Panama on the new railroad to the port of Aspinwall then another vessel would be used to complete the journey to the United States. It was long, it was slow and it was dangerous, but other than traveling by land across the United States, which at the time was even more dangerous and also very slow, the sea route was the only choice.

A couple days out of Havana the S.S. Central America, which carried a large cargo of gold coins produced at the early San Francisco Mint as well as an assortment of privately produced gold coins and ingots was in trouble. A tropical storm saw the ship take on water and while desperate efforts saved some of the passengers and crew the S.S. Central America and its treasure settled 7,200 feet below the waves.

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With a Civil War approaching and little by way of  equipment to try to recover the treasure the S.S. Central America was basically consigned to the history books.

In 1980, however, Tommy Thompson, a Columbus, Ohio, scientist began an effort to find and recover the treasure. In 1985 the Columbus-America Discovery Group was formed and with help from another scientist Bob Evans and a remote-controlled underwater device called the “Nemo,” the wreck was found and the treasure could be brought to the surface.

By the time dealer Dwight Manley began the sale of  coins and ingots two decades had passed from the beginning of the search. Q. David Bowers wrote a classic book on the treasure and the Gold Rush and the publicity was extensive and with good reason as the estimate is that the coins and ingots now all sold realized a staggering total of perhaps $100 million.

The size of the S.S. Central America treasure had been significant, but so too was the diversity. At the time the channels of commerce in San Francisco were still a mixture of just about anything and everything. Foreign coins circulated as did privately produced gold coins from a variety of different mints along with issues from the new San Francisco Mint, which had begun coin production in 1854. The coins and ingots of the S.S. Central America provide a snapshot of the monetary situation that prevailed in 1857.

The single most frequently found coin on the S.S. Central America was the 1857-S double eagle, which were found in many cases tightly packed together in wooden cases. The final total for the 1857-S was 5,402 examples almost all in Mint State.
There were, however, an assortment of others that Q. David Bowers described in his book A Guide Book of Double Eagle Gold Coins where he stated, “Additional $20 pieces of 1854-S, 1855-S and 1856-S in various grades were aboard as were a smaller number of Mint State 1857-S $2.50, $5 and $10 pieces and worn earlier issues among which were half eagles of 1834 (no motto), 1842-D Small Date, 1844-D, 1849-C and 1850-D.” In addition, there were over 400 gold bars about 60 percent of which were marked by Kellogg & Humbert as well as privately minted $5, $10, $20 and $50 pieces making it a true reflection of the various issues that had been in circulation in San Francisco at the time.

The fact that there were over 5,400 examples of the 1857-S meant a couple things. The coins involved probably went directly from the San Francisco Mint to the ship with at most a brief stop in between. Such a large number of Mint State examples of one date was also likely to have a significant market impact.

In fact, the general view would be that with over 5,000 examples of the 1857-S coming onto the market, the price would almost automatically drop. In fact, it has not. That is a testimonial both to the skill of the marketers and to the collector appetite to buy coins with a good story. What better story is there than sunken treasure?

An double eagle in Mint State from roughly before 1880 is a tough coin. It was simply a case where there were no collectors to save examples. That was especially true in the case of branch mint coins as there is really no evidence of even one collector of double eagles by date and mint until at least the late 1800s if not even later. Under the circumstances there was simply no one to save Mint State double eagles and even if a couple did manage to get saved and survive to the present day, the total is simply far too low to supply the various needs of type collectors, gold type collectors and others.

As Bowers observed of the 1857-S in his book A Guide Book of Double Eagle Gold Coins concerning the impact of the treasure, “Prior to the treasure find, the 1857-S was considered to be a plentiful coin in such grades as VF, EF and AU, but elusive in Mint State, most of the latter being in lower ranges. Now available on the secondary market are choice and gem coins of superb appearance. Accordingly, this one coin is an ideal candidate for a type set.”

Many appear to have taken the Bowers suggestion helping to draw down the suddenly large supply. It is also a case where there are treasure coin collectors and others who simply if approached right will buy a coin from a specific treasure.

With all the publicity surrounding the S.S. Central America that certainly occurred, many examples of these coins ended up with people who do not regularly buy coins. In the end, the assorted different types of buyers were able to basically account for the entire treasure, leaving the 1857-S at basically steady or slowly rising prices.

In the case of other dates in the treasure, most were found in very small numbers that would have had basically no impact on the market. The one other date with perhaps a few hundred examples was the 1856-S, and there too, the numbers have not been large enough to really have a significant impact.

The 1856-S was known in small numbers from another treasure called the Fort Capron Treasure, but those coins were in many cases so-called “sand-and-surf etched coins” without luster but sharp details. The examples from the S.S. Central America were generally better and were quickly snapped up by those wanting a Mint State 1856-S. The rest of the treasure consisted of coins and ingots which in many cases were extremely rare if not simply priceless. Such items are sold easily and with no impact on the market.

Other smaller treasures have also made their mark. One of the first was actually recovered around 1977. The S.S. Yankee Blade went down on Oct. 1, 1854, with a cargo that included $152,000 face value in coins consigned by the banking house of Page, Bacon & Co. in a clear case of human error as Capt. Henry T. Randall was apparently trying to established a speed record. Instead of being in open water, fog apparently caused Randall to be unaware that he was actually in the rockbound Channel Islands off Santa Barbara and the ship plowed into one of the rocks and sank. Most passengers are believed to have escaped a watery grave and it is that some of the treasure might have been recovered at the time.

The currents, however, are strong and tricky and the S.S. Yankee Blade proved to be too tough for any large recovery. Eventually it was basically forgotten until 1948 when the hull was located again, but it would take nearly 30 years before any serious recovery efforts were made. Those efforts produced a significant recovery of an estimated 200-250 examples of the 1854-S double eagle, which showed microscopic granularity probably from sea bottom movement as well as die cracks on the reverse that is typical of the 1854-S.

The couple hundred examples of the 1854-S added to an already small number of the historic date known in Mint State. The 1854-S was the first San Francisco double eagle, with the first example having been struck on April 3, 1854. Over the years a few have surfaced in various places but realistically even with the addition of the S.S. Yankee Blade coins the supply of the 1854-S is not enough to fill demand as it has a special place in history as the first double eagle to emerge from the San Francisco Mint.

The S.S. Brother Jonathan was a side-wheel steamer that had been active for years in transporting gold, coins and other items prior to making its final voyage in early 1865. On that last voyage it had a diverse cargo including machinery for a woolen mill, whiskey and gold coins. Heading from San Francisco to Portland the ship encountered bad weather and spent the night in Crescent City. The next day, thinking things were calm enough the ship headed on, but turned around because of rough seas intending to spend another day at Crescent City. On the way back, however, the S.S. Brother Jonathan struck a submerged rock and disappeared quickly.

Over the years there were many efforts to find the S.S. Brother Jonathan without success, but in the 1990s a group called Deep Sea Research Inc. managed to find the ship and recover a total of 1,207 coins most of which were 1865-S double eagles. Bowers and Merena was selected to bring the coins on the market making Bowers perhaps the best source of information regarding the treasure.

In his book, A Guide Book of Double Eagle Gold Coins Bowers states, “Today, over 600 Mint State coins exist from the dispersal of the S.S. Brother Jonathan coins in 1999, vastly altering the availability of this date – formerly a rarity of significance in this grade. In addition, several thousand circulated examples exist, mostly in VF and EF grades, nice coins reflecting the end of the Gold Rush era.”

Clearly in this case the impact of the treasure, which while not large, was significant simply because the 1865-S was a better date where there were not many examples prior to the recovery from the S.S. Brother Jonathan. In fact, it is possible to suggest that without the treasure in Mint State the 1865-S would be very elusive with probably fewer than a dozen examples known even in lower Mint State grades.

The most recent recovery has been among the most interesting. The S.S. Republic was originally the S.S. Tennessee and it like the S.S. Brother Jonathan had a long and interesting past having apparently been in both the Union and Confederate navies during the Civil War. In October of 1865 with the war finally over it was headed from New York to New Orleans with a reported $400,000 in specie on board. It never reached New Orleans as it was caught in a hurricane off the coast of Georgia and sank on Oct. 25, 1865.

In deep water and with an uncertain location, recovery of the treasure of the S.S. Republic was always at best a long shot. Of course any treasure recovery is a long shot and with the help of modern technology, the long odds have been reduced as is seen by the fact that the Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. group located the wreckage in 2003.

The stories smacked of fiction with the report of the ocean floor being strewn with gold and silver coins. It was not fiction and 262 dives later some 51,000 coins had been recovered.

The interesting thing about the S.S. Republic coins is that this was not a case of a single dominant date. The 1,400 gold eagles dated 1838 to 1858 were an important group. The 1847 at 221 examples was the most numerous date in the group but generally speaking gold eagles from this period are relatively elusive in upper grades.

The condition of several thousand double eagles dated 1850 to 1865 varied and so did the dates with all possible dates except the 1856-O being found. Some were numerous with more than 100 examples each of the 1852 (104), 1861 (457), 1862-S (127), 1863-S (180), 1864-S (168), 1865 (320) and 1865-S (253)  being the most frequently encountered.

The single 1854-O, however, drew much of the attention as the 1854-O ranks as one of the major early double eagle rarities. There are an estimated 30 examples known and this one called Mint State ranks as probably the finest known of a date where previously no Mint State examples were reported.

Nor was the treasure limited to gold as there were also significant numbers of Seated Liberty half dollars with the total put at more than 180 different varieties including five different die combinations believed to have been products of the time when Confederate forces controlled the New Orleans Mint facility.

As silver has more problems being under water for long periods than gold the silver coins do have some small problems such as saltwater etching or microscopic coralline (coral-like) structures embedded in their surfaces. That has resulted in a special form of encapsulation with the coins not being graded by normal scales but rather having the notation of a “Shipwreck Effect” although in many cases were they graded by their detail the grades would be high.

The diversity of the treasure in this case makes it less likely than some of the others that the quantity of any single issue found would be so great as to have any market impact. Even if that were not the case, as seen in the other treasures it is a case where normally speaking the demand seems to be present to absorb almost any possible supply of treasures from the deep. In fact, collectors seem to be happy to take notice of coins from the various wrecks as they make for a collection by themselves. These collectors would probably be more than happy to have the chance to buy still more treasures from the deep if they can be found. It may not be a normal approach to collecting, but it certainly is a lot of fun and a collection that includes a fascinating bit of history.

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