In the past decade, the rare coin market has embraced United States
coins recovered from shipwrecks, in large part because of major
third-party grading services’ efforts to conserve and grade these coins.
When shipwreck coins retain their original surface character and
display no visual evidence of their time underwater, they may be
graded using a 70-point numerical grading standard. Gold is more inert
than silver or copper and as such, gold shipwreck coins may often be
fully conserved. Silver coins are more prone to show evidence to
saltwater exposure and the surfaces may show an etched look.
Numismatic Guaranty Corp. uses a “Shipwreck Effect” designation
that, according to NGC, allows it to “accurately describe the
condition of a coin by noting surface disturbance that results from
its preservation history.” To receive this designation, coins must be
recovered in a way that preserves the history of the wreck and must be
conserved to ensure stability. Many of these coins receive a wear or
Among the most commonly traded “Shipwreck Effect” coins in the
marketplace are New Orleans mint Seated Liberty half dollars from the
SS Republic that sank in 1865. Examples simply graded “Shipwreck
Effect” but with the look of a bright About Uncirculated coin have
traded for between $250 and $500 at auction recently, with premiums
being attached to coins that retain their handsome wooden presentation
cases that accompanied the coins when they were originally marketed.
Gold coins found in shipwrecks often can be restored to like-new
condition, and finds have the potential to completely rewrite the
hobby’s understanding of rarity within a type. For example, the
discovery of the SS Central America — which sank in 1857 and was
discovered in the mid-1980s — included the recovery of more than 5,000
1857-S Coronet $20 double eagles in grades ranging from Extremely Fine
to Mint State 67. The coins were conserved, encapsulated by
Professional Coin Grading Service, and were marketed to collectors at
the start of the new millennium.
The PCGS Population Report counts 1,777 MS-64 examples of the
1857-S Coronet double eagle, and at auction these bring around
$10,000. In 2010 these were trading at the $8,000 level, and in 2012
examples could be occasionally found for $6,000.
The discovery of so many high-grade examples of Coronet, No Motto
double eagles exploded population reports and took pressure off of the
existing supply, while the work of coin marketers created demand for
the coins. Buyers today place a modest premium on SS Central America
double eagles in their original gold foil PCGS holders, and many
collectors want examples with their original boxes and packaging. ■