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Central America lock box gives glimpse of ship commerce

Historic silver and gold coins discovered in the purser’s lock box from the fabled “Ship of Gold,” the S.S. Central America, are finally coming to market, according to the California Gold Marketing Group LLC of Brea, Calif.

The ‘S.S. Central America’ purser’s safe seen as it was discovered on the Atlantic Ocean floor in 2014, 157 years after the fabled “Ship of Gold” sank in a hurricane. (Photo courtesy of California Gold Marketing Group)

“Two bags found in the purser’s box [back in 2014] contained a combined total of $1,588.95 face value of U.S. coins, from silver dimes to half eagle $5 gold coins, and ranging in date from 1796 to 1857,” said CGMG managing partner Dwight Manley.

This photo taken in 2014 shows some of the more than 8,000 U.S. dimes, still wet from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, just after they were recovered from a safe on the ‘S.S. Central America’ that sank in 1857. (Photo courtesy of California Gold Marketing Group)

“Most of the coins are dimes that were to be used in daily commerce while the ship sailed between Panama and New York City before sinking in a hurricane off the North Carolina coast in September 1857.”

Manley noted that one-by-one examination, cataloging, and certification (by the Professional Coin Grading Service) of the coins recovered in 2014 began in January 2018.

“Virtually all of the 3,129 federal, private mint, and world gold coins that were retrieved in 2014 now have been sold,” he added. “The silver coins from the purser’s safe are the final items curated.”

One of the dimes is an 1838-O that was overstruck at the New Orleans Mint with dies intended for an 1842-O quarter. Manley said the “35-cent” error coin is not for sale but will be publicly exhibited.

This coin apparently circulated for 15 years before becoming sunken treasure with the other coins now recovered from the S.S. Central America.

Bob Evans was the chief scientist on the 1980s mission that first located and recovered a portion of the S.S. Central America sunken treasure, and he served in that same role and as a numismatist with the 2014 recovery.

According to Evans, “One of the recovered canvas bags at the bottom of the box was about the size of a volleyball, and it contained thousands upon thousands of dimes. It quickly became obvious that this was the ‘cash box’ of the ship, a truly marvelous historical find.

“The purser’s bags, one with dimes and another with primarily silver quarter dollars and half dollars, were inside a box we found in a corner of the safe that was on its side when we found it. The box was flimsy, and it collapsed when we attempted to move it with our remote-controlled, spatula-like tool over 7,000 feet deep under water. There were other contents of the safe, including some paper artifacts and a pistol.”

The purser’s bag contained 8,873 U.S. dimes, 503 quarters, and 345 half dollars. A smaller bag inside the large one contained 55 gold dollars, 56 quarter eagles, and 41 half eagles.

Additional gold and silver coins, perhaps brought onboard by S.S. Central America passengers, were found elsewhere in the safe, for a combined total of 9,877 coins.

This 1850-dated Liberty Seated dime was recovered from a purser’s bag on the sunken ‘S.S. Central America’ in 2014 and may have been intended as a day’s pay for a crew member during the ship’s ill-fated 1857 voyage from Panama to New York. (Photo courtesy of Professional Coin Grading Service www.PCGS.com)

“The dimes in the purser’s bag survived 157 years in the Atlantic Ocean without the corrosion seen on most silver coins found on shipwrecks. This is undoubtedly due to the oxygen-starved (anaerobic) conditions within the safe, creating a deep-sea time capsule,” explained Evans. “The safe was not water tight, but it essentially sealed off the interior environment and its chemistry from the outside seabed environment. The result was that even the canvas bag holding these coins did not degrade significantly.”

The S.S. Central America was a 280-foot long, three-masted side-wheel steamship carrying tons of California gold that had been shipped from San Francisco to Panama when she sank Sept. 12, 1857, in a hurricane during the final leg of a voyage from Aspinwall (now Colón), Panama, to New York City.

The loss of the ship’s gold cargo was a major factor in the economically devastating financial panic of 1857 in the United States.

“These coins found in the purser’s safe made up the working money of the ship,” said Evans. “The sailors of the labor class were paid one to three dimes a day. It is fascinating to see everything that was in circulation in 1857, including some bent, pierced, and heavily worn coins.”

Professional Coin Grading Service has authenticated sunken treasure coins recovered in 2014 from the S.S. Central America, including this 1850 dime now encapsulated with some gold dust also recovered from the “Ship of Gold” that sank in 1857. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Coins)

In a court-approved transaction in November 2017, the California Gold Marketing Group acquired all the treasure recovered in 2014 from Ira Owen Kane, Receiver for Recovery Limited Partnership and Columbus Exploration, LLC. In 1999, CGMG had acquired all of the available S.S. Central America treasure that was recovered in the 1980s.

A complete list of all the items recovered in 2014 will be published in an upcoming book, America’s Greatest Treasure Ship: The S.S. Central America, by esteemed numismatic author Q. David Bowers and Manley.

Universal Coin & Bullion of Beaumont, Texas, is now selling many of these recovered silver coins. For additional information, call 800-822-4653, or visit the firm’s website at www.UniversalCoin.com.


This article was originally printed in Numismatic News Express. >> Subscribe today


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