Wrecked ship gives up its treasure

Fortune: Nearly 140 years after the Republic sank off Georgia, a recovery effort has found a cargo of coins possibly worth $150 million.

November 30, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

It lay in darkness at the bottom of the Atlantic for more than a century, guarded only by the occasional shark. Now, the 150-year-old steamship has a visitor: a robot bristling with lights, cameras and mechanical arms that is picking its way through the wreckage, hauling up a fortune in gold and silver coins, eventually perhaps 30,000 of them.

The ship is the Republic, which sailed from New York in 1865, just after the Civil War, carrying 59 passengers and crew members and a mixed cargo meant to help New Orleans recover from the war. About 100 miles off Georgia, battling a hurricane, it sank in waters a third of a mile deep.

Its cargo of lost coins, experts say, might be worth up to $150 million; that would make it one of history's richest treasure wrecks, though far shy of the $400 million claimed to have been recovered in the 1980s from the Atocha, a Spanish galleon lost off Florida in 1622.

"It's a dream come true," said Dr. Donald H. Kagin, an expert on 19th-century coins who is advising the company that discovered the wreck. "There are piles of coins."

The company, Odyssey Marine Exploration of Tampa, Fla., announced the find in August and said it hoped to retrieve the coins. Today it is announcing that the treasure is real and is detailing its findings. The company has retrieved more than 1,600 gold and silver coins. None is dated later than 1865, tending to confirm the wreck's identity, said Greg Stemm, the company's director of operations.

"For some reason, even the silver coins are in great condition," said Stemm, 46. "Part of it is surely the physical environment down there." The icy deep, explorers are finding, can often preserve objects, even precious metals such as silver, that normally corrode easily.

In the weeks ahead, the team expects to finish recovering coins and turn to salvaging other artifacts. It has retrieved the ship's bell and hundreds of jars and bottles.

"It goes from pepper sauce to pickles to champagne to mustard to patent medicine," Stemm said. "They're in beautiful condition, and they tell a beautiful story of what the North thought the South needed after the war."

A public company, Odyssey sells stock and hopes to turn a profit mainly by setting up shipwreck museums and selling coins. It argues that coins have less archaeological value than cultural items such as ship parts and navigational gear, and that selling them is an ideal way to finance recoveries of purely historical interest.

Stemm says the company's mission is to haul up not just riches but also enough artifacts to resurrect the spirit of forgotten ships and eras.

Not everyone agrees with this approach. While some academic experts praise it as a new window on the deep, others dismiss it as unprofessional and unscholarly.

Kevin J. Crisman, a marine archaeologist at the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University, said treasure hunters tended to inflate the estimated value of shipwrecks and to renege on promises to do archaeology. In the case of the Republic, he said, the prudent thing was to "wait until all the dust has settled."

Initially, the company recovered more silver than gold. "That caught us by surprise," Stemm said. He said Odyssey expected to find gold coins because silver was scarce in the Republic's day. But Stemm noted that most of the coins now being retrieved were turning out to be gold.

Once numismatic experts have inspected the recovered coins, the company plans to release reports on their number, condition and value.

Stemm said Odyssey was talking to the company that insured the Republic's money shipment, adding that he expected the ship's finders would share some reasonable fraction of the proceeds with the insurer.

Kagin, who is an Odyssey investor as well as an adviser, said the company was different from its predecessors because it was public and would fully disclose its finds, work and revenues.

Stemm said Odyssey, after raising all the Republic's coins in the next few weeks, would then focus on archaeological recovery of other artifacts for a month or two.

After that, early next year, Odyssey plans to move its recovery ship to the Mediterranean over a wreck thought to be the Sussex, a British warship that sank in 1694. In partnership with the British government, the company plans to recover a cargo of coins that experts estimate might fetch as much as $4 billion, which would be a record haul.

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