US Coins

SS Central America silver comes to market

Much has been written about the gold treasure salvaged in 2014 from the SS Central America, but less information has filtered out about the silver coins. Until now. 

California Gold Marketing Group, which holds marketing rights for all numismatic treasure recovered from the ill-fated vessel, is beginning to release information about the United States silver coins that were aboard the vessel, specifically those recovered from the purser’s box stored inside a shipboard safe.

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CGMG Managing Partner Dwight Manley revealed: “Two bags found in the purser’s box contained a combined total of $1,588.95 face value of U.S. coins from silver dimes to half eagle $5 gold coins, and ranged in dates from 1796 to 1857. 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.”

The silver coins are coming to market by one of the CGMG’s partners, Kenny Duncan Sr. from U.S. Coins in Houston. The coins are being marketed in conjunction with Universal Coin & Bullion, Beaumont, Texas. Manley said Duncan purchased 99.9 percent of the silver coins salvaged.

Virtually all of the 3,129 federal, private mint and world gold coins that were retrieved in 2014 now have been sold, according to Manley. The silver coins from the purser’s safe are the final items being curated and are now coming to market, Manley said.

The purser’s bag contained 8,873 U.S. dimes, 503 quarter dollars, 345 half dollars, and a smaller bag inside the large one contained 55 gold dollars, 56 gold $2.50 quarter eagles and 41 gold $5 half eagles. Additional gold and silver coins, perhaps brought onboard by SS Central America passengers, were found elsewhere in the safe for a combined total of 9,877 coins.

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 Q. David Bowers and Manley.

The coins are being curated by Bob Evans, chief scientist and numismatist for the 2014 salvage operations, and who also served as chief scientist for salvage efforts in the 1980s. Using proprietary methods, Evans is removing encrustration built up on the coins from 157 years of seawater submersion, without damaging the coins’ surfaces.

The curation is taking place at the California headquarters of Professional Coin Grading Service, which is grading and encapsulating the coins after curation.

Each coin is being encapsulated with a pinch of gold dust from dust recovered during the salvage operations.

A pinch, according to Evans, is about equal to a California gold 50-cent piece. Each encapsulated coin’s holder also contains a pedigree label signed by Evans.

A 35-cent error

Within the handful of discoveries being retained by CGMG is a “35-cent” double-denomination error — an 1838-O Seated Liberty dime overstruck with obverse and reverse dies intended for an 1842-O Seated Liberty quarter dollar. Apparently a struck 1838-O dime was fed into a press with quarter dollar planchets and subsequently overstruck by quarter dollar dies.

The obverse of the struck 1838-O dime was struck with the obverse die from an 1842-O quarter dollar and the dime’s reverse was struck with a reverse die for an 1842-O quarter dollar.

“Elements of each coin/year are present and visible,” Evans said via email. “The quarter was weakly struck over the dime, since the dime is thinner that a standard quarter planchet. The two dates are visible, with the 1838 sharper since it was a regular coin, and the 1842 larger, but less distinct. There are also other elements of the quarter obverse, weakly impressed onto the dime.”

Evans continued, “The reverse shows two O mintmarks, one where you would expect it on the dime, and the quarter’s ‘O’ nestled next to the second ‘S’ in ‘STATES.’ Other clearly visible (although weakly struck) elements of the quarter reverse are the eagle’s head between the dime’s wreath stems, the eagle’s wingtip at the rim by the ‘ME’ in ‘AMERICA,’ the tops of the letters ‘DOL’ (the tops of the letters ‘QUAR’ are also present, and parts of the arrows along the rim outside the dime’s ‘STA’ in ‘STATES.’?”

The overstruck coin circulated for 15 years before it was carried aboard the SS Central America, which sank Sept. 12, 1857, off the Carolina coast. Professional Coin Grading Service has graded and encapsulated the coin Very Good 10.

Manley said the coin is not for sale, but will be publicly exhibited.

Another find is an 1856-S Seated Liberty dime that looks as pristine as the day it was struck at the San Francisco Mint, according to Manley.

As of Feb. 8, 2019, PCGS had not yet assigned a final grade to the coin.

Manley said he was surprised that only one 1856-S Seated Liberty dime was among the finds, from a reported production mintage of 70,000 coins.

The earliest coin identified was a 1796 Draped Bust, Small Eagle dime, from the first year of the series’ production. PCGS certified the coin About Good 3 Details, according to Evans, “due to a tight little bend along the rim just to the left of the date, which, ironically, protected the date from wear, so the date is full.”

Evans explained that one of the canvas bags discovered at the bottom of the purser’s sealed iron box measured approximately the size of a volleyball and contained thousands of dimes.

“It quickly became obvious that this was the ‘cash box’ of the ship, a truly marvelous historical find,” Evans said.

Silver recovery

Evans recounted the painstaking efforts to recover that “volleyball” of silver coins.

“When we found the safe we studied the situation carefully before proceeding,” Evans recalls. “We took a measuring stick with us and played around with some options for possibly recovering it intact. The safe was lying on its side. We used the robotic fingers to nudge one of the rusty clumps representing the feet of the safe, and the foot collapsed in a cloud of reddish rust.

“So, not knowing the nature of the safe’s contents, and, for instance, what would happen in the event of a total collapse, and judging from the result of the foot we had tested, we decided to move around to the ‘door side’ of the box and probe a little further.”

“Upon poking at the edge of the door it fell off as well, collapsing in another reddish cloud,” Evans continued. “Once the cloud dissipated we could see inside.”

Evans said the condition of the safe’s contents was different, because of the different environment.

“The iron components were all black, as were all other components and contents” Evans said. “Organic components had survived fairly well, indicating that the oxygen had been used up inside the safe very early in its long 157-year term of submergence.

“However, organic components were also completely water-logged.

“A cardboard or pasteboard box, from the original bottom of the safe, showed very little integrity, and was falling apart as we eased it out of the safe with a pizza-paddle-like spatula.

“We flipped the lid off it and saw two bags inside. Fortunately, canvas bags maintained their function, unlike cardboard or pasteboard boxes, and we were able to lift the bags intact.

“Ultimately, we found the dimes and the small bag of gold inside the larger of the two bags, and quarters and halves in the smaller bag — obviously ship’s money.”

He added: “These coins found in the purser’s safe made up the working money of the ship. The sailors of the labor class were paid one to three dimes a day. Remember that in 1857, the SS Central America was on its 44th voyage to Panama and back since its launching in November 1853. This was a well-established business, and here we get to look at the life-blood of that business, its working capital. It is fascinating to see everything that was in circulation in 1857, including some bent, pierced and heavily worn coins.”

The SS 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 it 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.  

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