17th-century coins made long, often tragic journey Atocha treasure on display at mall

November 20, 1992|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

Displayed under glass in little black velvet boxes, the polished silver coins reflect no mark of tragedy and travail. They have been cleaned of the black crust of centuries and seem at home in a shopping mall jewelry store.

Bailey Banks & Biddle jewelers in the Annapolis Mall is the latest stop for the coins, a journey that began in September 1622 when the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha left Cuba for Spain with tons of precious cargo and more than 250 people aboard. The $2 million to $3 million in coins, silver ingots and gold bullion on display at the store today and tomorrow represent a fraction of the loot that sank in a storm with the Atocha out of Havana Harbor.

For 363 years, the ship and treasure valued at well over $200 million lay beneath 60 feet of water a few miles west of the Florida Keys. It took treasure hunter Mel Fisher 16 years to find it, a search that cost some $16 million and the life of one of his sons.

The silver coins that were found stuck together in black clumps on the sea floor are shiny now and tagged for sale at prices ranging from $1,250 to $1,750 apiece. A gold coin in fine condition goes for $40,000, a two-pound gold bar for $80,000; clusters of iron musket shot, cleaned and mounted on lacquered wooden blocks, sell for $30 to $45.

The exhibit also includes a number of artifacts recovered from the Atocha, including a musket, navigational instruments, an iron helmet, sword and silver candlestick.

Two of the men who worked with Mr. Fisher were on hand at the jewelry store yesterday and will be there again today and tomorrow. As officers of Historic Treasure Management Inc., Doug Douglas and Jim Willsey, both of Key West, Fla., spend a few weeks a year on the road with part of the Atocha's booty, offering some pieces for sale and talking about the treasure hunt of the century.

Neither Mr. Willsey nor Mr. Douglas was in the treasure business when Mel Fisher began his search for the Atocha in 1969. They had heard of his adventures, though. And when they each reached mid-life, they found the pull of Mr. Fisher irresistible.

"He's just my kind of guy," said Mr. Douglas, 51, who joined the Atocha expedition in the summer of 1984, about a year before the ship and its treasure were found on July 20, 1985. He said he admired Mr. Fisher's dogged pursuit of the Atocha, his nTC dedication "to this one thing . . . There were a few that really believed. I was one of the true believers."

His faith in Mr. Fisher's tenacity was so strong that he left the construction firm in Chattanooga, Tenn., that he and his brother owned and operated. The firm was doing well, building shopping centers in several states at once. But Mr. Douglas was tired, "crispy around the edges," as he put it.

An amateur diver and private pilot, Mr. Douglas sought out Mr. Fisher in Key West. It was a good match: Mr. Douglas wanted an adventure and Mr. Fisher needed money.

By then, Mr. Fisher had fought expensive legal battles with the state of Florida over the rights to the treasure and been accused of defrauding investors. He had followed false leads around 250,000 square miles of water. He had seen one of his sons, daughter-in-law and a member of his crew die in the search when their boat sprang a leak and capsized as they slept.

Mr. Douglas invested in the project and worked both as diver and running the business of Treasure Salvors Inc. And when the Atocha was discovered, he organized a group of investors to finance the task of recovering the spoils. That job took two years and cost nearly $10 million.

Among the investors was Mr. Willsey, 46, a former part-time scuba diving instructor who was working as a sales manager at a food processing plant in Tennessee before he joined the

Atocha crew in 1986. After one of his diving students joined Mr. Fisher, he quit his job and followed suit.

He said he found Mr. Fisher "very charismatic, very laid back. Like a modern-day Pied Piper."

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