SS Central America gold discoveries electrify hobby: Q. David Bowers

Appearance on market took years to accomplish
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Published : 11/09/15
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The Joys of Collecting column from Nov. 23, 2015, issue of Coin World:

I continue my commentary about double eagles in general and those in the SS Central America treasure in particular. That ship, laden with 3 tons (!) of gold coins and ingots from Gold Rush San Francisco, was lost in a hurricane off the coast of North Carolina on Sept. 12, 1857.

In the 1980s much of the gold was found by the adventurers, including Bob Evans and Tommy Thompson, from Columbus, Ohio, who had spent years in research. Then followed extended legal action by many who claimed an interest. Finally, the matter was cleared, and 92.4 percent was awarded to the Columbus-America Discovery Group and 7.6 percent to the other claimants.

In addition, Christie’s, the art auction house, had loaned money to Columbus-America and had an interest in the coins. This was settled by an agreement by which Christie’s held the inaugural sale of the treasure. I was invited by Christie’s to write the entire auction catalog, which I did. The sale was held at the company’s gallery on Dec. 14, 1999, and attracted a lot of attention.

On Jan. 19, 2000, it was revealed that the California Gold Marketing Group, headed by Dwight Manley, had purchased the entire 92.4 percent interest held by Columbus-America and contested by others, had worked with Christie’s, and that all claims had been settled. On Jan. 20 representatives from the press were invited to visit the offices of the Professional Coin Grading Service to view certain of the coins put up in special holders with imprinted gold foil labels. This launched what was to be one of the most successful marketing campaigns, perhaps the most successful, in the history of American numismatics.

California Gold Marketing Group constructed a large “show front” display, “The Ship of Gold,” measuring 50 feet from left to right. This was a representation of the side of the ship, with portholes through which gold coins and ingots could be observed. The “Kellogg & Humbert Assay Office” was set up nearby, and other exhibits were put in place.

A small “movie house” consisting of a large screen and several rows of seats was assembled for continuous presentation of the History Channel’s Ship of Gold film. This was the sensation of the 2000 American Numismatic Association convention in Philadelphia. Bob Evans presented a program as part of the Numismatic Theater, and I helped. The large room was filled with 400 people, more than ever attended such a program before or since. In time, Christine Karstedt and I helped with the publicity and marketing, and many dealers and collectors jumped in with enthusiasm.

Nothing was certain. In particular CGMG had 5,305 Mint State 1857-S double eagles! What would these do to the market? Would it crash?

Not to worry! The CGMG’s marketing program was a sensation. People who did not collect double eagles rushed to get a gold-label 1857-S double eagle. Soon, all were gone! Most buyers held on to them tightly — a coin with an aura of romance and adventure as detailed in my 1,054-page book, A California Gold Rush History Featuring Treasure from the S.S. Central America. Today in 2015 anyone buying such a coin can sell it for a handsome profit!

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