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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (10/2003) Headlines (09/2003) Headlines (11/2003)   Vol. 37 October 2003 
Treasure In The Headlines
As seen in the October 2003 edition of W&ET Magazine


Treasure hunter Kim Fisher found scores of gold coins from a centuries old Spanish shipwreck on the banks of the Hillsborough River on Wednesday- but he wasn't diving, just shopping.

Fisher, son of the late treasure hunter Mel Fisher, bought what he estimated to be one-third of the coins auctioned by the federal government in the Radisson Riverwalk Hotel.

The booty, a portion of the former belongings of convicted international cocaine smuggler Thomas Ruck, reaped bids worth $761,600. Counting items sold at other auctions across the country, Ruck's collection has brought more than $1.3 million to U.S. coffers.

The goods sold Wednesday included a 4.1-pound gold ingot that fetched the day's highest price at $18,000 and 73-pound silver bar that sold for $8,300.

The silver bar came from the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a Spanish galleon that sank about 35 miles west of Key West during a 1622 hurricane. All but five of the 260 aboard drowned. Mel Fisher recovered the ship's riches.

The rest of the sunken treasures came from ships that were part of the Spanish Plate Fleet of 1715, some 11 vessels that sank in shallow waters off the coast of Florida during a hurricane as they sailed from New World colonies to Spain, coin expert Daniel Frank Sedwick said.

The romance of history, allure of riches and the theater of the auctioneers attracted hundreds of people to the standing-room-only sale.

Urging prices higher, the virtuoso showmen employed a musical patter of squished-together phrases that served as bridges between numbers.

"Are you able to buy 'em?" barked auctioneer Gary Pousen, in a rat-a-tat delivery that sounded like, "Yable ta bom?"

"Come on back!" he urged, in a delivery that human ears detected as "Kamback!"

Swept up in the verbal tide was Janice Wheaton, who owns a lawn service in Odessa and spent $3,200- more than she planned- on a rare 1683 2-escudo coin.

"I just love old shipwrecks," she said. Her piece, she mused, was "from Colombia, where the drug guys were. It's kind of ironic."

Fred Nikolic of St. Petersburg spent $2,000 on a colonial coin as a present for his son's graduation from the U.S. Air Force Academy.

The auction also featured 280 U.S. St. Gaudens Double Eagle gold coins, dating from 1908 to 1928. They went for an average of about $475 a piece, sold in groups of several.

Frederick Freed, a St. Petersburg chiropractor, spent $3,300 on American coins. Freed said he heard about the auction from a friend and decided to come. His patients, he confided, thought he was at a seminar.

In addition to coins, the auction featured salvaged fleet artifacts including a gold disc that C.J. Keevan of Key West bought for $5,600. Keevan, a self-described treasure, said he wanted the 7-ounce disc because it was relatively rare.

"I wanted to add to my collection," he said.

Tom McKaughan, a Belleair Bluffs airline pilot, bought an ornate item believed to be a candlestick holder or a Catholic communion vase, for $16,000- $1,000 more than the limit he'd set for himself.

"I like the historic significance of it," he said. "It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get something's that a work of art, a treasure."

His 16-year-old daughter, Jessica, said she thought the piece he bought was "the coolest" item for sale.

Sedwick said the artifacts went for bargain prices, but the salvage coins fetched what he described as high wholesale amounts.

"The bargain of the day" was a 2-escudo coin of unknown date that went for $900, said Britney Sheehan, spokeswoman for EG&G Technical Services, the company hired by the government to conduct the sales.

Taffi Fisher, Mel Fisher's daughter, submitted just one unsuccessful bid. She said she attended the auction because "I'm interested in what people pay for these things, obviously, because we find stuff like this."

She and her brother said they thought the prices for the noncoin artifacts were low. But she said she was unimpressed with the quality of the items because "I have a whole museum full of stuff" that's much nicer.

Kim Fisher declined to say how much he spent, but he said he bought about 60 Spanish colonial coins, many to sell to clients, but some for the family collection.

"There were a couple of Lima [Peru] 8-escudo [coins] that I really liked," he said. "They're highly sought, beautiful coins."

Asked how bidding at an auction compared with diving for treasures, he said: "The first 10 minutes or so was pretty nerve-wracking. But after that, it's fun. I'd rather be diving."

From The Tampa Tribune, submitted by Jose Martinez, Mulberry, FL.


Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc., a Tampa company that retrieves valuables from sunken ships, has signed a television documentary deal with National Geographic Television. National Geographic will produce a two-hour program on Odyssey marine's exploration of the British shipwreck HMS Sussex. The warship, loaded with gold coins, sank in the Mediterranean in 1694.

From The Tampa Tribune, submitted by Jose Martinez, Mulberry, FL.


The story of a wayward torpedo found in Half Moon Bay started simply enough two weeks ago with a search for a boater's prized money clip in the murky water at Pillar Point Harbor.

It ended Thursday when the U.S. Navy found the errant World War II-era warhead under 15 feet of water and hauled it out to sea to blow it up. The torpedo, which had about 500 pounds of explosives but lacked a detonator, had been sitting near a fuel dock in this city south of San Francisco, where it was in danger of being nicked by passing ships or snatched by criminals.

Instead, a Navy explosive ordnance disposal team called in from Nevada hauled up the torpedo in about 15 minutes. The mission ended about two weeks or worry over the device.

That was when local diver Mike Stone got a call from a distressed boater who said he had dropped his heirloom silver money clip into the ocean. Stone, who usually works at the harbor checking the bottom of boats for damage, agreed to search for the lost accessory.

He jumped into the water expecting to see the usual harbor detritus- cell phones, pagers, cans and bottles. But there, in water with less than 1-foot visibility, he found the torpedo.

What resulted was a public safety mission involving five government agencies. Harbor officials asked for help from a team from the Department of Transportation, which just happened to be using a remote-controlled underwater camera nearby. They took pictures, which were relayed to the Navy, which then coordinated the torpedo operation with the San Mateo County Sheriff's Department and U.S. Coast Guard.

What no one is certain of is how it got there in the first place. The military has dumped munitions in several areas about 20 to 50 miles off Half Moon Bay. Harbor officials say they remember one other time- approximately 21 years ago- when another torpedo was found, and the Navy was called in to destroy it.

The Navy team transported the torpedo about five miles west of Pacifica and planned to watch for marine mammals before detonating it underwater. Lt. Lexia Littlejohn, a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard's San Francisco Bay Marine Safety Office, said the team would watch a mile around the detonation site for an hour to make sure no marine mammals were present.

From The Honolulu Star Bulletin, submitted by Ron Paul Smith, Honolulu, HI.


If John Finney is right, no one will ever claim the $1 million bounty offered by a New Hampshire coin dealer for a rare 1913 Liberty Head nickel.

Finney, of Bend, Oregon, believes the coin vanished under tons of concrete when his mother's girlhood home in Sparks, Nevada, was razed in the early 1960s to make way for a freeway overpass.

The story, he said, "started way back in the '20s and has been in the family forever," Finney said in a recent telephone interview. "I remember hearing about it when I was 8 years old."

The Liberty Head was minted from 1883 to 1912. But five Liberty nickels were minted illegally in 1913, possibly by a mint official.

They were never placed in circulation and for a time were considered illegal to own.

Two are in private collections and two are in museums. The whereabouts of the fifth has been a mystery.

Bowers and Merena Galleries of Wolfeboro, N.H., is offering a $1 million reward for the coin.

"Everybody in the industry would love to see it," said Paul Montgomery, president of Bowers and Merena, which auctioned one of the coins in 1996 for $1.4 million.

And everyone in the country who has a nickel seems to have called his company since an Associated Press story about the coin ran around the nation recently.

"It's caused a general sort of chaos," said assistant auction administrator Sue Mitchell. "We have 12 lines, and since the story hit they pretty much haven't stopped.

"All 12 are blinking right now," she said during the interview.

She said the company hadn't gotten any solid leads among the several thousand calls on Tuesday and several thousand more on Wednesday.

She hadn't heard the Finney account previously.

Over the years, many have claimed to have the missing coin but it hasn't turned up.

According to Finney, his uncle, Geno Questa, began collecting coins as a youngster and obtained the nickel in the 1920s.

"He had seven brothers and sisters and was afraid one of them would find it," Finney said. "So he hid it in one of the floor boards in the house."

When he went back to find it, it was gone.

Finney said his uncle, nicknamed Dene, talked often about the lost nickel and mentioned it again the day before he died in 1993 at age 78.

"Dene thinks what happened is one of the other kids found it and hid it in another spot," Finney said. "He searched the house but never found it."

From The Kennebec Journal, submitted by Gary S. Mangiacopra, Milford, CT.


Archaeologists unveiled the oldest shipwreck ever recovered in the Netherlands recently, an astonishingly well-preserved Roman military transport that sank along the banks of the Rhine 18 centuries ago.

Although other ships have been found in what was the sprawling Roman Empire, the flat-bottomed barge is one of the few found north of the Alps. It was built about 180 A.D., when Marcus Aurelius passed the throne to the emperor Commodus.

"What's really exciting is that the type is slightly different from others that have been found," said maritime archaeologist Andre van Holk, who oversaw the excavation. "It's longer and thinner."

The ship's 75-foot-long exterior is intact, as are a masthead and iron nails.

The ship "must have sunk in some kind of accident," Van Holk said. "It may have been natural causes, such as a heavy storm on the river, or it may have been capsized. The flat bottom construction makes it easy to tip."

The bow of the ship was open for loading supplies, or possibly men and livestock. Near the stern a roof covered a kitchen and a cabin furnished with a carved chest and a small cabinet, the keys to which have been recovered in near mint condition.

From The Kennebec Journal, submitted by Gary S. Mangiacopra, Milford, CT.

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