S.S. Central America, an American steamer, sank in the Atlantic in 1857 carrying a significant quantity of gold bullion. Its original haul is estimated at more than a metric ton, and was perhaps as much as 20 tons, including thousands of what are now scarce $20 double eagle coins.
Although the first coins and treasure from the wreck started to be recovered in 1986, litigation over the project’s funding—i.e. investors getting stiffed—and how the profits made from the treasure will be divided have carried on to this day.
Finding the S.S. Central America
Much of the ship’s treasure has been recovered by a company called Odyssey Marine between the initial 1986 findings and as recently as 2014. After decades of battles in court against one of the firm’s founders, treasure hunter Tommy Thompson, the majority of the S.S. Central America treasure may finally be sold.
With a cargo of gold coins, gold ingots, and other gold bullion on board worth somewhere above $40 million in melt value alone (in today’s dollars), the ill-fated ship carried one of the legendary treasures of the 19th century. The sinking of the S.S. Central America even caused a financial panic in 1857 by virtue of how much money in gold was lost at sea in the wreck.
In 2014, a small portion of the gold bullion on board was brought to surface. To date, only a comparatively trivial amount of the historic treasure had gone to auction, back in 1999 with the help of California Gold Marketing Group and auctioneer Sotheby’s. The latest court filings suggest that the recovery effort’s original investors, benefactors, and insurers will finally be getting the returns they’re owed from the sale of S.S. Central America treasure.
The news of the upcoming sales was reported by the Columbus Dispatch, whose publishing parent company is actually one of the treasure project’s initial creditors. Similar to bankruptcy proceedings, various investors and creditors are paid with funds from selling the treasure; the order of who gets paid first depends on who has legal priority.
In terms of interesting numismatic rarities that have been documented from the S.S. Central America, the shipwreck yielded a great number of mint state 1857-S $20 Liberty Head gold double eagles, which were struck at the San Francisco Mint.
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