Shipwrecks and their Treasure
After having bought a "shipwreck effect" 1861-O Seated Liberty half dollar recovered from the SS Republic shipwreck, I was still not yet a coin collector. I loved the fact that I now possessed a coin from an important event in history, even if it was a tragic one. I wanted to know more about the shipwreck and if there were any other similar shipwrecks with coins recovered that I could own.
What I found was that people have been recovering treasure from shipwrecks since the beginning of time. But I immediately started to see a problem. How do you authenticate that an item you purchase is really from a specific shipwreck? I first started questioning this as I found many items in online stores and on auction sites claiming to be from old Spanish shipwrecks that were part of the famed Spanish treasure fleets. The most famous of these being the Nuestra Señora de Atocha.
The Nuestra Señora de Atocha was a Spanish galleon loaded with treasure that sank in 1622. After 16 years of searching, the main part of the treasure was found in 1985 by Mel Fisher. Today, you can find many places selling a piece of the treasure and guaranteeing the authenticity. But how does a simple certificate of authenticity prove a coin is from a shipwreck? It doesn't take a genius to see there is plenty of opportunity here for misrepresentation.
For example, I came across an auction (ebay #8375370870) for 2 certificates of authenticity, each for an 8 reale coin, from an unknown shipwreck apparently excavated by a company called Maritime Explorations. The key here is that only the certificates were being auctioned, not the coins with them. Someone actually bid on and won the auction. So again, it doesn't take a genius to see that there probably is going to be two non-shipwreck coins paired up with these certificates and sold to an unsuspecting buyer! So, am I going to pay a premium for something whose authenticity is always going to be in question? I don't think so.
But the coin from the SS Republic was different. Odyssey Marine Exploration had enlisted Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) to certify and encapsulate the coins from the shipwreck. NGC and PCGS (Professional Coin Grading Service) are considered two of the more reputable of the third party coin graders. (some dealers only deal in certified coins from these two companies) This more than took care of my concerns about authenticity. I now was on the hunt for more shipwreck coins certified by either NGC or PCGS.
This new hunt of course led me to gold $20 Type 1 Double Eagles (1850-1866). There were four major shipwrecks that have been found with hoards of $20 Type 1 Double Eagles. These were the SS Yankee Blade (sank in 1854), SS Central America (sank in 1857), SS Brother Jonathan (sank in 1865), and the SS Republic (sank in 1865). If I really wanted to own some nice coins from shipwrecks, it looked like I would have to start collecting $20 Type 1 Double Eagles. Collecting gold was going to cost more, but at least I felt confident about the authenticity of the coins being from a shipwreck. . . . And anyway, who doesn't like gold?
They say to buy the book before the coin. So my bible became "An Insider's Guide to Collecting Type 1 Double Eagles" by Douglas Winter and Adam Crum. I read this book from front to back and I began my quest for shipwreck gold. Eventually, I acquired $20 Type 1 Double Eagles from the SS Central America, SS Brother Jonathan, and SS Republic. But there was still the elusive SS Yankee Blade?
Then this past summer, I came across lot #355 in the American Numismatic Rarities "William H. LaBelle, Sr. Collection" auction on July 25th, 2006. There was an 1854-S $20 Type 1 Double Eagle in MS64 listed as being from the SS Yankee Blade. On top of that, it was being auctioned from the reknowned Q. David Bowers's own personal collection. . . . What a pedigree! . . . But my understanding is that very little is known about the 1977 recovery of gold from the SS Yankee Blade and nothing has really been printed as to what exactly was found. So I asked the owner (and clearly an expert on the subject), Mr. Bowers, the following questions:
1) Has the coin been certified by one of the grading services, and if so, is the attribution to the SS Yankee Blade designated on the holder?
2) If there are no real records of the coins recovered from the SS Yankee Blade, how sure are you of the attribution of this coin to the shipwreck.
3) What is the history of the coin before you acquired it? Did you purchase it soon after the recovery or has the coin changed hands a few times?
Basically, I was concerned with the proof of authenticity. If I bought it and then later wanted to sell it, what proof would I have that the coin was from the SS Yankee Blade? Here is Mr. Bowers's response:
Thank you for your inquiry. There are no 1854-S $20 coins that are directly attributed to the S.S. Yankee Blade, but it is presumed that all with slight seawater effect and with myriad tiny die cracks are from this source. There is a spread on this ship in my American Coin Treasures and Hoards book. I never sent it into a certification service, but if I did, and they marked “S.S. Yankee Blade” on it, this would by (sic) probable but not certain. I did interviews, etc., as mentioned in my book, and that is why my attribution is such.
Hmm? He probably is right and all the coins with seawater effect and myriad tiny die cracks are probably from this shipwreck. But is it certain? Is it evidence enough to pay a premium? Will others in the future agree with this attribution? Needless to say, I did not bid on the coin. In hindsight, I probably should have bid on the coin if for no other reason than it is pedigreed to Mr. Bowers. But again, without certification and encapsulation, how would I prove that pedigree in the future?
So, it would appear that my collection of shipwreck coins will not include an example from the SS Yankee Blade. But more importantly, this quest for shipwreck coins, and the reading of the Winter/Crum book, was the turning point for me. It is from that point on that I consider myself, not only a coin collector, but a numismatist. Not only do I want to learn more about shipwrecks, I want to learn more about coins. . . all coins! I have the bug!