Shipwreck Gold Found off U.S.—Worth $180,000,000?

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
December 1, 2003

National Geographic is documenting the S.S. Republic expedition for broadcast on Dateline NBC and National Geographic Ultimate Explorer on MSNBC in January 2004 and for a National Geographic Special on PBS later in 2004.

Deep-water shipwreck explorers have raised Reconstruction-era gold and silver coins and other precious artifacts from what could be one of the richest shipwreck treasures ever found. The treasure was found in the wreck of the S.S. Republic, which sank during a hurricane off the coast of Georgia in 1865.

Records indicate that the ship was carrying coins worth U.S. $400,000—a fortune at today's values.

The paddlewheel steamship went to the bottom of the Atlantic in October 1865. The ship was en route to New Orleans with a cargo of coins and other supplies destined to aid post Civil War Reconstruction. Passengers and crew were able to evacuate the sinking ship, though some died in a lifeboat before they could be rescued.

The Republic was discovered last August in some 1,700 feet (500 meters) of water, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of Savannah. The find capped an effort that had spanned a dozen years, but when the Odyssey team began excavating the site their success was much more immediate.

"The coins were in the area that we had predicted we would find them, and the first coin appeared within the first hour of excavation," Odyssey co-founder and director of operations Greg Stemm told National Geographic News. "I would like to think that we were that good, but there is always an element of luck in this type of endeavor."

Odyssey Marine Exploration, based in Tampa, Florida, is a leader in the field of deep-ocean shipwreck exploration.

While Stemm's team was on-target with its estimate of the coins' location they have encountered some pleasant surprises.

"The vast majority of the coins we are seeing are gold $20 and $10 pieces, mostly in beautiful condition," Stemm said. "Because of the scarcity of silver coins during the period we frankly were surprised to find silver coins as well—especially in such fine condition that you can actually still see the mint luster."

Many of the gold coins have a slight dark film that easily rinses away to reveal uncirculated surfaces preserved by years in the deep.

To date, more than 750 gold coins have been recovered. Some 60 percent of them are Coronet Head 20 Dollar Double Eagles and the balance are Coronet Head 10 Dollar Eagles. More than 900 silver Seated Liberty Half Dollars have also been recovered thus far.

At the time of the Republic's discovery, estimates made from historical records and comparable coin sales placed the cargo's possible value at U.S. $120 to 180 million. So far, there is insufficient information to check the accuracy of those early estimates.

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