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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (01/2005) Headlines (12/2004) Headlines (02/2005)   Vol. 39 January 2005 
Treasure In The Headlines
As seen in the January 2005 edition of W&ET Magazine

1,200-YEAR-OLD PENNY SOLD FOR $409,000

A 1,200-year-old Anglo-Saxon penny sold for $409,000 recently setting what the auction house said was a new world record for the most expensive British coin.

Spink auction house had expected the 0.15-ounce gold coin to fetch between $214,000 and $267,000.

American collector Allan Davisson purchased the coin, which was found in 2001 by an amateur searcher using a metal detector near the River Ivel in Bedfordshire, north of London.

It is the only known coin to bear the name of King Coenwulf of Mercia, who ruled a region of southern England from 796 to 821.

The previous auction record for a British coin was a gold piece bearing an image of King George III's crown, which sold for $303,000 in 1999, Spink said.

From the Chicago Tribune, submitted by Bob Bolek, Hometown, IL, and Duane Traver, Candor, NY.


It's the stuff of pirate legends, but don't waste your breath asking Joel Ruth on what stretch of Florida's Treasure Coast he found his hoard of Spanish pieces of eight- waiting to be scratched out of the sand with bare fingers and toes.

Treasure hunters guard their secrets. Especially, if like Ruth, they've just found about 180 near-mint windows and dread the worst. But to professional and amateur treasure seekers, it's the time to hit the beaches and hunt lost riches.

"It's why we're called the Treasure Coast," said Ruth, a 52-year-old marine archaeologist with an African parrot named Euclid who has learned to squawk "Pieces o' eight."

It takes the big storms like Jeanne and Frances to rake several feet of sand off the beaches and dunes and expose gold, silver and gems that were sunk and scattered centuries ago.

But making a find takes more than walking the beaches with a metal detector. What separates those who make a real find from the legions of beachcombers is knowledge and patience, said Sir Robert F. Marx.

Marx is an underwater archaeologist and marine historian who was knighted by both the Spanish and English crowns for his work, including about 800 popular and scientific articles and about 60 books.

His colleague Ruth, for instance, has been keeping his eye on a certain stretch of beach in Brevard County for 20 years, checking it every so often as the years go by, Marx said. He and Ruth think the find is part of a sunken treasure fleet off Florida's Atlantic coast.

But it took Jeanne to bring a slice of the shoreline back to where it was in 1715, he said.

That's the year a famous Spanish treasure fleet of about a dozen ships sank in a summer hurricane, bloated with treasure headed for Phillip V of Spain, Marx said.

Captain-General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla, commander of the flotilla carrying gems, gold, silver and porcelain from China- hence the name Plate Fleet- set sail in the late summer 289 years ago.

Under pressure from the king to bring treasure to boost a war-ravaged economy, Ubilla set sail even though hurricane season had already started. Leading with the Capitana, the fleet hugged Florida's Atlantic coast, heading north in the hopes of catching the trade winds of the Gulf Stream. With no more warning than a morning of steel-gray skies, a tempest snapped the ships like matchsticks, a few survivors would later tell.

Nautical records of salvage attempts and previous finds pointed to the spot that Ruth staked out to search. Others know the spot and have made finds there, too.

The basic rules of treasure hunting on beaches include finders keepers, but don't dig into the dunes or in protected areas.

Because riches go to those who are there first, "You have to be Johnny on the spot," said Mitch King, vice president of the Treasure Coast Archaeological Society.

"[Hurricane] Jeanne did more destruction than any storm has in years," King said. The last storm to yield finds like Ruth's happened on Thanksgiving about two decades ago, he added. Treasure hunters still whisper about it.

And you have to be quick, said Ruth, because the high tides right after a storm often dump several feet of sand back on the same beaches, leaving the heavy treasure well below the reach of most metal detectors.

"You could be walking over a million dollars in coins and never know it," said Ruth, who makes a living on salvage efforts and identifying and restoring ancient coins.

He headed out with his metal detector about 8 a.m. on September 26, when Jeanne's winds started slacking off. He knew the storm that brought some of the worst destruction to Florida's coast could also yield the most riches.

He wouldn't say where he went other than "somewhere in Brevard." He shimmied down to the beach from a place where there's access- and knew right away it was a good spot. There was no modern trash- and the waves had cut deep into the sand.

"I made a find almost immediately- a big green [piece of] eight," he said.

It was green from age but wasn't worn or corroded, which told him that the coin spent most of the time deep under the protection of the sand- making it far more valuable to collectors.

Ruth stayed for about four hours, filling his pockets with coins until his batteries were about dead and the high tides waves bashed him against the sandy cliffs.

He went back the next day, but there was too much sand piled up. He didn't find a thing, other than modern rubbish.

He showed his find to Marx, who smiled with approval and the respect of a fellow hunter. Although many marine archaeologists would call them "plunderers," professional treasure hunters say they give more discoveries to museums and make more historical finds because their ventures pay for new searches than a life in academics couldn't finance.

And where does Ruth find the coins? "I'm sworn to secrecy," Marx said.

But if another storm hits before hurricane season ends Nov. 30, he'll probably go back.

From the Orlando Sentinel, submitted by too many readers to list.


A family in Stockholm, Sweden removed a tree from their garden and found a treasure: 280 silver coins from the early 11th century.

The coins, most of them from Germany, were discovered several weeks ago on the Swedish island of Gotland, archaeologist Leif Zerpe of the Gotland county museum said recently.

From the Richmond Times-Dispatch, submitted by Edward Marcum, Monroe, VA.


Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's frustration was apparent in a letter he penned in late December 1861. Addressing Gov. Francis Pickens, Lee said the number of Union troops that already had occupied parts of South Carolina was enough to overwhelm the estimated 10,000 Confederate soldiers the state had at the ready.

Even so, he tried to declare Charleston off-limits to troop reductions.

"The garrisons for the forts at Georgetown, of Ft. Moultrie, Fts. Sumter, Johnson, Castle Pinckney & the field works for the defense of the approaches through the Stono, Wappoo (waterways) etc. which embrace the best and steadiest of our troops, cannot be removed from their posts and must not therefore be included in the force for operations in the field," Lee wrote.

He added "The strength of the enemy, as far as I am able to judge, exceeds the whole force that we have in the State; it can be thrown with great celerity against any point, and far outnumbers any force we can bring against it."

The letter was written from Lee's headquarters near Coosawhatchie in Jasper County, long before he was promoted to general of the Army of Northern Virginia and became a national hero in the South.

On Saturday, three of Lee's letters and more than 400 other notes from South Carolina's early participation in the Civil War will be auctioned in Columbia to collectors and historians. For decades, they've been held by a local family that wishes to remain anonymous.

The letters, telegrams and other correspondence were written mainly during the opening years of the war. No one is sure of their monetary worth, but experts say they capture the tone of a fledgling nation moving slowly toward defeat.

"I would never venture to put a value on them all," said auctioneer Bill Mishoe of Mishoe's Auction House and Estate Services in Columbia. "Robert E. Lee writing a letter that's five or six pages long to the governor, there's nothing to compare it to."

Many of the letters are in an ornate style of handwriting, long since discarded. Some notes are mundane. Others are copies of ordinances drafted during the creation of the state's rebellion government that came with secession in 1860. One covers the deletion of all references to the United States of America in the state constitution.

"The guy who owns them now inherited them in 1961," Mishoe added. "Apparently they have been in his family since the end of the war. His great-great somebody was an officer in the Confederate Army." They are being housed in a Charleston vault.

Also included in the collection are a number of letters and telegrams signed by Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, who became commander of the defense of Charleston. A common theme is the constant pressure to find more men, including quotas of slave labor for trench works and fortifying positions.

Beauregard, for instance, told Gov. Milledge Luke Bonham: "I called for voluntary contributions of labor, and many patriotic persons have sent me their slaves... but, even in this way no permanent force has been placed at my disposition adequate to the juncture, and the work to be done."

Some of the letters don't address the war at all. One note asks the governor to intervene on behalf of a slave who was sentenced to be whipped every 30 days and kept in solitary confinement.

Eric Emerson, executive director of the South Carolina Historical Society, said the collection was offered for sale to the society about a year ago for more than $1 million, too steep for the society's bank account. "It is a substantial collection," he said.

Many of the letters were addressed to, or generated by the state's Civil War governors. The historical value is that they give insight into gubernatorial actions while in office, Emerson said.

"One is a message from Gov. Pickens to the South Carolina Legislature informing the legislators about his discussion with President (James) Buchanan about Ft. Sumter," Emerson said. Buchanan preceded Abraham Lincoln in the White House.

What the letters are worth today is unclear. Peter Clarnet of Alexander Autographs in Cos Cob, Conn. said anything Confederate is hot on the market today because of the rarity of official documents that survived the war.

"If I were collecting Civil War, anything Confederate is what I'd be buying," he said.

Wallace Markert, of CS Acquisitions in DeWitt, VA, who specializes in Confederate artifacts, said a signed Robert E. Lee letter can go for $5,000 or more, but added the value of any letter goes up based on rank of officer, content and whether it includes live accounts of actual fighting.

Local interest can also affect value, he added, especially since so many Charleston and South Carolina families have ancestors who fought during the war. Some of them may be named in some of the correspondence.

Auctioneer Mishoe said the auctioning industry has been down in recent years because of the sagging economy. But that's not true for Civil War items.

"A lot of stuff is falling off, but the Civil War stuff has held it's own pretty well," he said. "There's been a lot of interest in the Civil War as long as I've been in this business."

The letters are being sold one at a time at Mishoe's Auction House and Estate Services in Columbia.

From The Post and Courier, submitted by Stephen Buckler, Ruffin, SC.

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