SS Central America treasure under curation

Robert Evans anticipates concluding his more than three-decade-old romance with the SS Central America and its treasure sometime near the end of March, when he finishes curating the more than 3,100 gold coins, 45 pioneer gold ingots and over 10,000 silver coins salvaged in 2014 by Odyssey Marine Exploration LLC.

The entire inventory of what Odyssey Marine recovered in 2014 can be found here.

Evans, a geologist by education and training, was involved with the location and initial salvage of the shipwreck site off the coast of the Carolinas and every salvage expedition since 1983 as chief scientist and historian. Evans has documented the retrieval of every coin and artifact from the site of the wreck of the Central America, which sank Sept. 12, 1857, during a hurricane.

Coin World had the privilege of meeting Feb. 13 with Evans at Collectors Universe in Santa Ana., California, in the inner sanctum of a Professional Coin Grading Service facility where he was entering his 34th straight 10- to 12-hour work day curating the treasure on behalf of its owner and marketer, the California Gold Marketing Group.

PCGS has already begun grading and encapsulating several coins that have graduated from Evans’ curation process. 

Same techniques

Evans is employing the same proprietary curating techniques he used near the turn of the 21st century to prepare the initial treasure for presentation. Recovery of that treasure, valued then at more than $100 million, was financed by investors with Columbus-America Discovery Group.

The curating techniques do no damage to the surfaces of the items recovered, according to Evans; his process only separates the rust and other encrustations that have fused to the wreck’s coins and relics, deposits from deteriorating iron elements of the ship and from ocean microbes in the century plus that the treasure has been submerged.

2014 salvage operations yielded a number of coins and other items not among the initial treasure salvaged in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including the purser’s safe and its contents.

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As each coin or artifact was brought to Evans aboard the salvage recovery vessel in 2014, Evans meticulously recorded the object. The coins, especially the gold $20 double eagles, were carefully placed in nylon plastic tubes, with rubber gaskets acting as cushions between each coin to prevent handling damage.

As part of the curation process, Dwight Manley, managing partner of the entity that owns the treasure, examines each coin as it is resurrected from its temporary storage tube, determining which to curate first and in what order to process the rest.

The coins, carefully removed from the tubes, are separately placed on cloth diapers lining the bottoms of Sterilite plastic containers, to await the next step in the process.

That step is placement into smaller plastic containers where the coins will be subjected to the proprietary solution that helps loosen the encrustations. After the solution is added to the containers, covering the coins, a powdered reagent is added that initiates an effervescing reaction that begins to bubble off the encrustration. Using a soft sable-hair brush that will impart no marks, Evans carefully brushes the coins’ coated surfaces. As the solution dissolves the encrustation, it begins to simply dissipate into the liquid or break away in solid particles as Evans’ brushing disturbs it.

The coins remain submerged in the solution for varying lengths of time depending in the severity of the encrustation, and repeated application of the solution and reagent is sometimes necessary, Evans said.

Pleasantly surprised

The 2014 salvage included examples of coins and other material not among the treasure salvaged in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Among the more recently salvaged items was the safe for the ship’s purser. Its contents included a number of pokes — fabric of various dimensions wrapped around contents and secured with string.

The salvors recovered gold dust, rocks and minerals containing gold, coins and more. The haul included thousands of silver Bust and Seated Liberty dimes, quarter dollars and half dollars, which Evans believes may have been used to pay the salaries of the Central America’s crew.

Wrapping the content of one of the pokes was a fragment from the front page of a Nov. 20, 1856, issue of the New York Weekly News and National Democrat.

Among some of the unusual pieces recovered from the wreck site were a $5 gold half eagle, fused obverse down into sediment and other ocean floor debris, and a trio of counterstamped gold coins — an 1854-O Coronet $2.50 quarter eagle with J.J. POLHEMUS / DRUGGIST / 180 J ST. COR 7TH/ SACRAMENTO CAL. stamped incuse on the obverse; an 1852 Wass Molitor pioneer gold $5 coin with WW. LIGHT / DENTIST on the reverse; and an 1846 Coronet $5 gold half eagle with H.H. PIERSON / DENTIST on the obverse.

A large number of high-grade California fractional gold coins are in the recovered inventory, Evans said. 

A complete listing of items recovered can be found at the Odyssey Marine website.

In the pioneer gold category, the 2014 treasure was absent any octagonal gold $50 slugs, but it included Wass Molitor 1855 $20 coins, Wass Molitor 1852 $5 coins, and 1853 Moffat & Company $20 gold coins. Also recovered were many gold nuggets of varying sizes and weights.

The 45 gold ingots recovered in 2014 represent only four of the seven assayers that the earlier treasure revealed.

The 2014 ingots were from the firms Henry Hentch; Kellogg and Humbert; Justh & Hunter; and Harris, Marchand & Company.

The salvors recovered sufficient gold dust in 2014 to produce about 40,000 pinches, roughly 1.5 grams of gold each, that will be encapsulated in PCGS holders with labels pedigreeing the content to the Central America shipwreck.

The treasure’s owners

The treasure is owned by California Gold Marketing Group, which comprises Manley as managing partner; Ira and Larry Goldberg from Ira & Larry Goldberg Coins & Collectibles; Q. David Bowers, chairman emeritus of Stack’s Bowers Galleries and numismatic director of Whitman Publishing LLC., who wrote a book referencing the Central America and its initial salvage operations two decades ago and is writing a second work on the 2014 recovery; and Kenny Duncan from U.S. Coins in Houston. Duncan was not a partner in CGMG when the first treasure was salvaged in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

An Ohio court granted approval in November for the marketing group to purchase the treasure salvaged by Odyssey Marine. The purchase price, $30 million, was to be paid to a court-appointed receiver for Recovery Limited Partnership.

Title to the treasure was subsequently transferred to CGMG, and the treasure was moved from an undisclosed holding location in Florida to vaults in California.

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