Gold Treasure Recovered From 1857 Shipwreck Goes on Display


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Gold Treasure Recovered

Ever wanted to own a piece of a real sunken treasure? If your pockets are deep enough, you will soon get your chance, as the gold from one of the greatest lost treasures in U.S. history is about to be offered for sale.

The 3,100 gold coins, 45 gold bars, more than 10,000 silver coins and over 80 pounds (36 kilograms) of gold dust recovered from the wreckage of the S.S. Central America steamship are now sitting in a makeshift laboratory just south of Los Angeles, waiting for their public debut.

The booty, with an estimated worth of over $50 million, is only a portion of the vast treasure pulled from the wreck over the last several decades.

The first chapter of the treasure’s recovery began in the 1980s when scientist Tommy Thompson convinced 161 people and companies, mostly from Ohio, to invest $12.7 million in his scheme to find the Central America.

The side-wheel steamer went down on its way from Panamanian port on to New York City. The ship was carrying an estimated 15 tons of gold from the goldfields of California, worth $2 million at the time - or what would be valued today at nearly $300 million. Six days into the journey, while off the coast of the Carolinas, the steamer ran straight into a Category 2 hurricane and began taking on water. For days, the crew and passengers struggled against the flooding, making every possible effort to relight the boilers and escape the storm. On September 12, 1857, 153 passengers - mostly women and children - were shuttled from the SS Central America to two nearby rescue ships. A few hours later, however, the Central America sank, killing 425 people. At the time, it was the worst steamship disaster in American history.

In addition to the staggering loss of life, the sinking also helped spark a financial panic in the United States. It is estimated that the gold in the wreck was equal to nearly 20 percent of all the gold held in New York City banks at the time.

central america sinking

A painting depicting the sinking of the SS Central America in 1857. (Photo: J. Childs/Wikimedia Commons)

For years the ship was lost until Thompson discovered the final resting place of the SS Central America in about 7,000 feet of water 160 miles off the coast of South Carolina. The treasure hunter staked a claim and began recovery using a then-revolutionary remotely operated underwater vehicle. He and his crew brought up more than 500 ingots and 7,500 gold coins, but then faced years of court battles for the right to keep and sell the treasure. First, a group of American and British companies that had insured the ship’s cargo more than a century claimed rights to the treasure. In 1993, after a lengthy, contentious lawsuit, Thompson's company, Columbus-America Discovery Group, and the insurers agreed to divide the treasure, with the former acquiring 92.5 percent of the recovered sunken goods.

Two years later, Thompson was slapped with a new lawsuit, this time by some of his investors, who claimed to had not received the returns they were promised. In 2012, Thompson missed a related hearing and became a fugitive after a federal judge issued an arrest warrant for the treasure hunter.

Thompson was found hiding in Boca Raton, Florida, in early 2015 and has been in jail since then. He pleaded guilty to criminal contempt and was sentenced to two years in prison. He won’t serve this sentence until he purges himself of an additional charge of civil contempt for not revealing the whereabouts of 500 gold commemorative coins stamped from melted gold from the Central America.

gold coins from ss central america

Piles of gold coins located outside the wreck of the S.S. Central America. (Photo: Odyssey Marine Exploration)

The gold set to go on display comes from a second haul from the wreck that was recovered by Odyssey Marine Exploration in 2014. Some of the coins go for $1 million each because of their combination of rarity and the history behind them.

In particular, it is now known that the recovered portion of the treasure included 710 Philadelphia Mint gold coins, 1,956 San Francisco Mint gold coins, 216 pioneer gold coins, 9,670 dimes, 646 quarter dollars and 381 half dollars, as well as more than 1,500 foreign coins. The foreign coins include an 1855 and an 1856 Australian Queen Elizabeth gold sovereign.

Those interested in taking a look at this rare piece of American treasure can visit the Long Beach Convention Center from Feb. 22-24.

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