US Coins

Shipwreck gold coin with unique message on display

This 1854-O quarter eagle carrying Sacramento businessman J.L. Polhemus’s counterstamp was among cargo recovered from the 1857 wreck of the SS “Central America.”

All images courtesy of Professional Coin Grading Service.

Visitors to the M.S. Rau Fine Art, Antiques and Jewels gallery in New Orleans will have the opportunity to see a special display. A counterstamped 1854-O Coronet quarter eagle recovered as sunken treasure has now come home to The Big Easy for the public to see.

“This historic coin is an 1854 Liberty Head quarter eagle struck at the New Orleans Mint and was later counterstamped by California merchant J.L. Polhemus. It was among the sunken treasure recovered in 2014 from the fabled ‘Ship of Gold,’ the SS Central America, that sank in a hurricane in 1857 while sailing to New York,” explained Bruce Smith, director of numismatics at M.S. Rau Fine Art, Antiques and Jewels.

“It is the only gold coin of this denomination known with the advertising counterstamp mark of Polhemus, a Gold Rush-era pharmacist in Sacramento, California. He made so-called store cards with various other coins in circulation at the time. When this particular gold coin was made in 1854, its face value was $2.50. Today, it’s a New Orleans treasure and insured for $65,000 for its first visit home in over a century and a half,” Smith said.

The coin, graded Extremely Fine 45 by Professional Coin Grading Service, is on public display at the Rau gallery, 630 Royal St. in New Orleans, Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Admission is free.

Scientist Bob Evans, who was on the successful SS Central America recovery missions, said the counterstamped 1854-O Coronet quarter eagle he discovered while examining treasure retrieved in 2014, is one of his favorite coins.

“That coin was made in New Orleans at a time when the New Orleans Mint may well have been using California gold to mint coins. Gold Rush gold got around back then! So, then this coin made its way all the way to Sacramento, where a shopkeeper hammered his name on it. And then, somehow, it made it on to the S.S. Central America, and then, somehow, we brought it back up 150 years later, a couple of hundred miles from North Carolina. That’s just a great story! An example of a great, full-circle journey,” Evans stated.

The SS Central America was a 280-foot-long, three-masted side-wheel steamship carrying tons of California gold when it sank on Sept. 12, 1857, in a hurricane during the cargo’s final leg of the voyage from Aspinwall (now Colón), Panama to New York City. The tragedy took the lives of 420 of the ship’s 578 passengers and crew members, and the loss of the gold cargo was a major factor in the economically devastating financial panic of 1857 in the United States.

When the SS Central America site was discovered in 1988 on the seafloor of the Atlantic, 7,200 feet down about 150 miles off the North Carolina coast, Life magazine proclaimed it “America’s greatest treasure.”

For additional information, contact M.S. Rau at 888-557-2406 or visit online at

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