US Coins

Shipwreck artifacts to be featured at August ANA show

The “Central America” purser’s keys, with his brass name tag, will be included in the California Gold Marketing Group/Holabird Western Americana Collection’s exhibit.

All images courtesy of Holabird Western Americana Collections.

A range of artifacts recovered from the wreck of the SS Central America, along with the submersible that was used to discover the wreck and recover the artifacts, will be displayed at the American Numismatic Association World’s Fair of Money from Aug. 16 to 20.

The exhibit will be hosted jointly by the California Gold Marketing Group and Holabird Western Americana Collections at booth #1926, according to a press release from Donn Pearlman & Associates.

The Central America, originally named the George Law for a co-owner of the U.S. Mail Steamship Company, was a 280-foot paddlewheel steamer launched in 1852. It ran passengers, mail, and gold from Aspinwall (present-day Colon), Panama to New York City in the early-to-mid-1850s. William Lewis Herndon received command of the vessel in 1855.

Earlier this year, Dwight Manley, Managing Partner of the California Gold Marketing Group, donated the Central America’s bell to the U.S. Naval Academy, where a monument to Herndon has stood since 1860.

The George Law ran aground in 1857 and, after a major overhaul, was renamed. Its life as the Central America would prove short.

On Sept. 3, 1857, the Central America left Aspinwall for New York with 578 crew and passengers and many gold coins, ingots, and bars produced from gold mined in California.

A hurricane struck the ship off of the coast of the Carolinas on Sept. 9. After days spent contending with the storm and evacuating some passengers, the Central America sank on Sept. 12, 1857, taking hundreds of people and millions of dollars worth of gold to the seafloor. In total, 425 people lost their lives, including Herndon. Historians point to the loss of the cargo carried aboard the ship as a cause of the Panic of 1857.

Efforts to find the Central America ramped up in the 1980s. A number of factors made the Central America, now nicknamed the “Ship of Gold,” an attractive prize, including the wreck’s location, the value of its treasure, and the fact that any legal problems could be resolved in U.S. courts.

The Central America’s bell was found in 1986 and the wreck was discovered in 1987 by the Columbus-America Discovery Group. Formed in 1985 in Columbus, Ohio, the Columbus-America Discovery Group was dedicated to finding the wreck of the Central America, bringing together a group of scientists and technicians funded by a partnership of investors. The group brought to bear new technologies that allowed remote recovery of artifacts to be accomplished more safely and cheaply than human diving efforts. Recovery efforts began in 1988 and ended in 1991. Another recovery effort was launched in 2014 by a different company.

The California Gold Marketing Group was established in 1999 and owns more than 1,000 artifacts from the wreck, which have been consigned to Holabird Western Americana Collections and will be auctioned later this year, according to the press release. The firm purchased the 92.4% interest held by the Columbus-America Discovery Group; the remaining interest was shared by surviving insurance companies that insured the 1857 ship and its cargo.

The first exhibit of material from Central America opened at the Long Beach Expo in February 2000 and sales of the coins, ingots, and bars recovered from the wreck began in 2000.

Coins were not the only artifacts recovered from the wreck since the late 1980s; the noncoin artifacts listed in the press release were stored in three states (Maryland, Massachusetts, and Ohio) since being recovered.

The exhibit at the World’s Fair of Money includes several of them, including a daguerreotype steel plate depicting a young woman dubbed by the recovery team the “Mona Lisa of the Deep” after it was recovered in 2014. It was found in a pile of the ship’s coal.

A pair of jeans with a button fly, thought to have been manufactured by Levi Strauss, is insured for $1 million and will be in the exhibit. The jeans were recovered from the wreck in a trunk that belonged to a survivor, John Dement.

The lid to what the press release describes as the remnants of a Wells Fargo treasure shipment box will also be exhibited, in addition to jewelry made from California gold with quartz as gemstones. A set of keys with a brass name tag belonging to the ship’s purser, Edward W. Hull, will also be included.

The press release quotes Bob Evans, one of the scientists who discovered the wreck and recovered its treasure: “Seemingly ordinary items from the passengers and crew today give us extraordinary insights into the everyday lives of the people who traveled on the steamship.”

Another notable item featured in the California Gold Marketing Group/Holabird Western Americana Auctions exhibit is the remotely operated submersible nicknamed Nemo, used to find the wreck and recover its treasure. Like some of the artifacts it recovered, the six-ton submersible was put in storage in Ohio. It has been in storage since 1991. 

The World’s Fair of Money will take place in Hall F of the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center, 5555 N. River Road, Rosemont, Illinois, from Aug. 16 to 20.

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