SS Central America treasure includes rare world gold coins

Finest known Australian 1855-S gold sovereign found in wreck
By , Coin World
Published : 06/18/18
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A shipwreck in American waters well known for containing classic gold coins of the United States also held a secret stash of world coins, revealed only recently.

The SS Central America, the fabled “Ship of Gold,” sank off the coast of the Carolinas amid a fierce storm in September 1857, while on the way to New York City. The loss of its treasure was a factor contributing to the Panic of 1857. 

Part of its golden treasure was recovered in the 1980s and marketed in the 1990s, but those coins were American. An expedition in 2014 to recover more from the wreckage revealed an array of world coins, including what experts record as the finest known Australian 1855 Sydney Mint gold sovereign, made during the first year of that mint’s operations.

Now graded PCGS MS-62+, it is one of 82 sunken treasure world gold coins representing 10 different countries retrieved from the SS Central America in 2014 and recently cataloged by the California Gold Marketing Group and certified by Professional Coin Grading Service. 

Rare Australian gold

“The 1855 Sydney Sovereign is the equivalent of the U.S. 1854-S Half Eagle; both ‘S’ mints, both first year of striking. It’s an amazing discovery,” stated Dwight Manley, managing partner of the California Gold Marketing Group. Only four coins are known to survive of the 1854-S Coronet gold $5 half eagle mintage, from the San Francisco Mint’s first year. 


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“An 1856 Sydney Mint Sovereign, now graded PCGS AU58 and even rarer than the 1855, also was found. Someone apparently traveled from Australia to the San Francisco area with the 1855 and 1856 gold coins,” Manley revealed. 

“It is fascinating to think about how these coins got to San Francisco. Were they carried by an Aussie miner seeking his fortune during the California Gold Rush or acquired as winnings in a gold camp poker game? Those two coins were onboard when the SS Central America went down 161 years ago,” said Manley. 

“The two Australian coins were found in the same area of the seabed more than 7,000 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the Carolinas,” explained Bob Evans. 

Evans was the chief scientist on the 1980s missions that first located and recovered a portion of the fabulous SS Central America treasure and then assisted with the 2014 recovery.

“Communication, commerce, and travel between California and Australia were fully developed during the 1850s, in spite of the 7,500-mile steamship voyage required. The Australian Gold Rush that started in 1851 attracted a diverse, multi-national throng, quickly changing the demographics of the former penal colony. Many among the international crowd of gold-seekers visited both Australia and California seeking their fortunes,” explained Evans.

Coins from other countries abound

The vast majority of the more than 3,000 gold coins recovered in 2014 were struck in the United States.

The retrieved world gold coins, however, in addition to the two Australian gold pieces, represent an interesting mix of Latin American and European entities. Source countries and the number of coins found follow: Bolivia (1); Federal Republic of Central America (1); Costa Rica (3); France (20); Great Britain (41); Mexico (5, including 3 contemporary counterfeits), Netherlands (6); Peru (2); and Spain (1). 

Some notable British coins among those recovered in 2014, now graded and cataloged, are an 1852 Victoria sovereign with Arabic 1, graded PCGS MS-63+; an 1855 Victoria sovereign, PCGS MS-62; and two 1856 Victoria sovereigns, one graded PCGS MS-62, the other PCGS MS-61. 

Also now certified are a Costa Rican 1855-JB half-escudo coin graded PCGS MS-63; a French 1854-A Napoleon III 5-franc coin, and an 1855-A Napoleon III 20-franc coin, both graded PCGS MS-61; a Mexican 1852-Go 8-escudo coin, PCGS MS-61; a Netherlands 1840 Willem I 10-gulden coin, PCGS MS-63+; and a Spanish Ferdinand VII 1809-S Draped Bust 2-escudo coin, graded PCGS AU-50, the oldest-date gold piece recovered from the famous ship.

“It’s kismet that one of the recovered coins from the SS Central America, an 1835 2 Escudos, was from the Central America Republic,” said Manley.

The Federal Republic of Central America was a sovereign state between 1823 and 1841, comprising at times part of what is now Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, southern Mexico and Nicaragua. 

Each of the PCGS-certified world coins now is encapsulated in its own specially produced and labeled holder, along with a pinch of recovered SS Central America gold dust in a separate compartment. The insert label includes a statement of authenticity hand-signed by Evans.

In the coming weeks, additional highlights of the recently examined and certified treasure will be revealed. 

They could write a book

A complete inventory of U.S. and world coins and assayers’ ingots recovered in 2014 will be listed in an upcoming book, America’s Greatest Treasure Ship: The SS Central America, The Second Journey, by Q. David Bowers and Manley. It will be published by the California Gold Marketing Group later this year.

Why were there dozens of world coins on the ship? Bowers explained: “In San Francisco in 1857 all sorts of foreign gold coins were legal tender. Back then, the Australian Sovereigns and the other recovered gold coins were not of any particular notice or importance, but today they are numismatic treasures!”

The SS Central America was a 280-foot long, three-masted side-wheel steamship carrying tons of California gold that had already been shipped from San Francisco to Panama on the way to New York. The steamer sank in a September 1857 hurricane on the leg of the journey from Aspinwall (now Colón), Panama, to New York City. The loss of the gold cargo was a contributing factor in the economically devastating financial panic of 1857 in the United States. 

Recovery of the treasure was a subject of litigation that resulted in an award of 92 percent of the treasure to the finders of the wreck. Finder Tommy Thompson was in turn sued by investors. He disappeared for months before being captured and extradited to Ohio; he is currently held in a federal prison in Michigan on contempt charges for not revealing the whereabouts of his portion of the gold. 

The California Gold Marketing Group LLC of Brea, California, acquired the 2014 treasure from Ira Owen Kane, Receiver for Recovery Limited Partnership and Columbus Exploration LLC in a court-approved transaction in November 2017.

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In 1999, the same group acquired, and subsequently marketed, the available treasure that was recovered in the 1980s.

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