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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (01/2008) Headlines (10/2007) Headlines (03/2008)   Vol. 42 January 2008 
Treasure In The Headlines
As seen in the January 2008 edition of W&ET Magazine


Jack Suneson bought a downtown property on Commerce Street thinking it was a good spot for tourists to part with their money.

But someone had already parted with a stockpile of coins at the site- nearly 130 years ago.

Suneson is a businessman from Nuevo Laredo who owns Marti's, a Mexican arts and crafts store. Recently, a construction crew was digging up dirt to lay a foundation for Suneson's new store on Commerce St.

A backhoe uncovered about 200 U.W. quarters, half dollars and silver dollars dating between 1852 and 1880. The crew also found a gold coin from that era.

The value of the coins largely depends on their condition, and many are green with corrosion. Suneson said he doesn't expect to make a fortune selling the hoard. He's more interested in the mystery of how the coins wound up underground, forgotten.

"We theorize these were buried under some sort of floorboard or something," Suneson said.

The hoarder might have lived around 1880 because the most recent coin was a Morgan silver dollar dated that year.

"Usually, people hide coins like that because it's an illegal stash, or they're afraid of putting their money in the bank," said Ron Guth, president of Professional Coin Grading Service in Newport Beach, California.

The stash included about 100 Morgan silver dollars, which are named after the coins' designer.

Butch Muennink, owner of Alamo Heights Coin Shop in San Antonio, said a well-preserved Morgan silver dollar could probably fetch between $12 and $18 today. It might be worth more depending on other factors, such as where it was minted.

If corrosion "pitted" the coins- or ate away at the metal- the value would be drastically reduced, Muennink added.

Harry Shafer, a retired archaeology professor from Texas A&M University who was hired by Suneson as a consultant, said finding buried money at a construction site is unusual.

"Listen, I've been in archaeology for 45 years," Shafer said. "I've done lots of projects. But I've never come across anything quite like this."

Suneson imagines that someone tucked away coin after coin over the years, making sacrifices to save for the future. "It's really tragic that they might have passed away and never told anybody," he said. "And the family never got to use it."

Suneson said he plans to clean the coins that can be saved and display them in his new store.

From the San Antonio Express-News, submitted by Tom Rifleman, San Antonio, TX.


A county garbage operations employee found a plastic bag on the road stuffed with $65,000 recently- and immediately turned it in to authorities.

It turned out the money had fallen off a Loomis armored car half an hour before Debbie Cole found it near the Pinellas County solid waste operations facility where she works. First she thought it was a turtle in the road.

The 53-year-old Largo woman found the bag just before 7 a.m., full of enough $50 and $100 bills to pay her salary for two years. She immediately contacted a supervisor, who called deputies.

It's not clear how the bag fell from the truck, said Mark Clark, spokesman for Loomis, a Houston-based cash-handling company.

Cole's boss, Bob Hauser, said he can't give her a raise or a bonus for her good deed because she's a government employee. But maybe, he said, he can arrange some extra time off.

From the Napa Valley Register, submitted by Jerry R. Hallett, Napa, CA.


For months, 11 folders of old papers rescued from his parents' closet sat in Thomas Willcox' sports utility vehicle. Then he realized some were signed by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and might be valuable.

They were: The three letters written by Lee during the Civil War sold at auction recently for $61,000.

That was far off the record $630,000 a Lee item sold for in 2002. But it was an improvement from last year, when two letters from the general who surrendered in 1865 sold for $5,000 and $1,900, said Patrick Scott, director of rare books and special collections at the University of South Carolina's Thomas Cooper Library.

The letters were among more than 400 documents Willcox put up for auction after a protracted fight with the state, which claimed ownership of the documents that had been in Willcox's family for years. Neither Willcox nor the auction house had specific figures, but estimates placed the total sales at less than $400,000.

The collection details life in South Carolina from 1861 to 1863. Many of the letters are correspondence between generals and the Confederate government and Govs. Francis Wilkinson Pickens and Milledge Luke Bonham.

"The strength of the enemy, as far as I am able to judge, exceeds the whole force that we have in the state," Lee wrote to Pickens on Dec. 27, 1861. "It can be thrown with great celerity against any point, and far outnumbers any force we can bring against it in the field."

Other letters are from residents asking for help defending their communities or for the return of slaves taken from plantations to help build fortifications. Some document the grisly details of war.

"But shall I tell you now of the battlefield?" Sgt. Maj. William S. Mullins of the 8th Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers wrote in an Aug. 6, 1861, letter about the first Battle of Manassas. "Of the dead hideous in every form of ghastly death: heads off, arms off, abdomens protruding, every form of wound, low groans, sharp cries... convulsive agonies as the souls took flight. It is useless to write. I know something of the power of words to paint and I tell you that a man must see all this to conceive it."

Fewer than 50 people gathered for the auction of old correspondence, telegrams, bills and receipts. Two of the Lee letters were sold to an out-of-state collector bidding by phone. David Ellison of Columbia spent $27,000 for a Lee letter that talked about using slave labor to build defenses.

"I'm not sure what his letter says," he said. But to put General Lee and slave labor in the same letter "convinced me that that had to be a document of some historical importance."

The issues addressed in the letters ranged from defense to the mundane. A $75 bid bought a bill of sale for bags of flour.

Willcox's letters were supposed to be auctioned in 2004. But South Carolina sued, claiming they were written as part of official state business and were government property. A federal judge ruled last year that Willcox owned the collection, which were in his family for generations before he discovered them in his parents' home after they died.

The legal spat led Willcox to file for bankruptcy.

Willcox said he was disappointed with the sales. He said he's sure he at least broke even after spending money on legal fees and $70,000 for a detailed appraisal of the documents. "I thought it would have gone better," he said. "At the end of the day, it's over," he said.

From the Napa Valley Register, submitted by Jerry R. Hallett, Napa, CA.


Given its grand distinction as "The Fort That Saved America," it's hard to imagine how Philadelphia's Fort Mifflin ever got lost in the tourism shuffle.

The fort allowed George Washington's tired army to escape to Valley Forge in 1777 during a five-week British naval bombardment that otherwise would have ended the Revolution.

Even so, more prominent attractions like Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell eclipsed the fort for years, leaving it to a quiet existence along the banks of the Delaware River. This all changed in August 2006 when Wayne Irby, the fort's projects manager, was cutting the grass.

As Irby maneuvered around the torpedo magazine, a loose patch of earth gave way, exposing a sinkhole more than a foot deep. For reasons he still can't explain, he felt compelled to stop the mower and start digging.

He had discovered the entranceway to a series of underground rooms hidden for over a century. The fort's staff named it Casemate 11.

"The discovery amazed us because we originally believed there was only one room there, and the only record of that is a dotted square on an 18th century diagram," says Lee Anderson, executive director at Fort Mifflin. "The other rooms aren't in any documents."

Casemate 11 started as two rooms used for storing gunpowder and munitions during the Revolutionary War. The Army added three more rooms throughout the mid-1800s, creating an L-shaped labyrinth of five chambers that served as a prison during the Civil War.

After the war, the Army sealed and buried the casemate's entrance, leaving no traces of its existence. The August 2006 discovery was the first time anyone had set foot in Casemate 11 in over 130 years.

On entering, it was clear they had stumbled upon a veritable time capsule. Nineteenth century artifacts, many in pristine condition, remained exactly where the owners left them in the late 1860s.

"We found everyday items like tin plates, a wash basin, several bottles, and a flask with a picture of George Washington on one side and General Burnside on the other," Anderson says. "We also found chicken bones, which we think were from someone's lunch."

Even more striking are messages from Civil War-era prisoners, literally scrawled on the doors and walls in their own handwriting. Men left notes of contrition preaching that "To be good is to be happy," and also issued warnings to "Shun this place oh, man who so ever art thou." Others just wrote their names, perhaps to leave some evidence that they lived.

One inscription- "Wm H. Howe"- proves particularly significant. A hero who rallied Union troops at the Battle of Fredericksburg, William Howe later deserted along with 300 others and killed the bounty hunter pursuing him.

Howe was convicted of desertion and murder, and the Army sent him to Fort Mifflin where he spent three weeks in Casemate 11 awaiting his hanging. He was the only person executed at the fort during the war.

"All this time we believed Howe was imprisoned in a guardhouse that's no longer here, but it turned out we were wrong," Anderson says. "Ironically, we discovered the casemate almost 142 years to the day of his hanging."

Once past the initial excitement of these discoveries, Anderson and his staff turned their attention to the task of preserving them. To do this, they enlisted the help of Milner + Carr Conservation, a Pennsylvania-based firm that specializes in architectural preservation.

"The prison as a whole is in a remarkable state of preservation, especially the inscriptions on the surface of the doors," says Andrew Fearon, an architectural conservator with Milner + Carr. "At the same time, these materials are extremely fragile, so we have to be very careful how and in what order we remove them.

The casemate's environment has held a constant temperature and humidity for over a century. Its wooden doors have been moist for so long that the water is actually holding them together. If dried too quickly, they would disintegrate.

To preserve and restore these artifacts, conservators must simulate the casemate's environment and change it incrementally to slowly adjust them to conditions above ground. Then they clean any corrosive surface products to prevent further deterioration.

The process is painstaking and time-consuming, with the drying stage alone taking several months, according to Fearon. In the meantime, Anderson's staff will install replica doors and artifacts in the casemate to give fort visitors a sense of the existence Howe and his counterparts led years ago.

"This site is the best kept secret in the country, and we don't like that," Anderson says. "We want to show this gem to the world."

And that's exactly what they're doing. Anderson estimates that attendance has tripled since the discovery.

So much for that quiet existence on the banks of the Delaware.

From The Erickson Tribune, submitted by Bob Bolek, Hometown, IL.


U.S. Customs Officer Edward Gross was working at O'Hare International Airport when a traveler returning from Central America muscled over a suitcase containing a 50-pound stone pedestal decorated with a loop and a face.

To Gross, an avid reader about ancient civilizations, the sculpture looked suspect.

"I said, 'If this is a 17th Century piece, we'll mail it back to you," the Customs and Border Protection officer said. "But if it's a pre-Columbian piece, you won't get it back.' He said, 'That's not fair.'"

Uncle Sam was spared the postage. The stone seized on March 27, 2006, turned out to be a Mayan artifact dating to A.D. 200-800.

Recently, U.S. officials handed it over to the Guatemalan consulate in a ceremony in Oak Brook.

The return of the piece, valued at $20,000, highlights the flood of antiquities from countries that were home to ancient civilizations. Countries such as Greece, Egypt and Colombia all have sought the return of antiquities including sculptures, jewelry and other cultural treasures. Western museums often resist, saying their objects were obtained legally in other eras.

Recently the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles agreed to return 40 objects, including an $18 million statue of a deity often identified as Aphrodite, after Italy claimed Marion True, a former curator, knowingly acquired them illegally. Italy has filed criminal charges against her. She has denied wrongdoing.

Countries are taking a variety of stances, with Italy striking one of the most aggressive, said Terry Garcia, executive vice president of the National Geographic Society, which has been working with the Peruvian government to negotiate the return of ancient Inca artifacts housed at a Yale University museum.

"They have not just said, 'This belongs to us and we want them back,'" Garcia said. "They have said, 'This belongs to us, and you have taken them illegally, and we're going to prosecute you if you don't give it back to us.'"

The history of cultural objects in foreign hands varies widely. Some are spoils of centuries-old wars; some have been unearthed relatively recently by looters and sold for profit, and still others were acquired openly by museums.

Recently, Greece repeated a long-standing demand for the return of what are widely known as the Elgin Marbles, 2,500-year-old reliefs that Britain's Lord Elgin brought from Athens in the 19th Century. The British Museum, which holds the marbles, maintains that Elgin obtained them legally from the Turkish authority that then governed Greece, something the Greeks dispute.

But nations increasingly are seeking to convince the West of the importance of these treasures to their homelands.

"We are talking about the cultural patrimony of a country," said Gustavo Lopez, Guatemalan consul general to Chicago. "So much of our patrimony has been scattered all over the world."

The Guatemalan pedestal returned recently had been brought to this country by a traveler who was volunteering on church work there. He said the object was a farewell gift from a family with whom he stayed.

Importing the pedestal was illegal, but the unwitting traveler was not charged, said Gail Montenegro, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Guatemala is seeking another object, from Chicago's Newberry Library- the Popol Vuh, a 188-page translation of a book considered the Mayan Bible for its epic narrative about the Sovereign Plumed Serpent and other gods, Lopez said.

A Newberry spokeswoman said the library cannot comment because it has received no formal request for the manuscript.

Both sides agree that the Newberry legally obtained the Popol Vuh from a private collector. It has been digitizing the manuscript to make it available to scholars and the public.

The problem of exported artifacts is especially severe in Guatemala, Peru, Colombia, and Panama, said Joel Palka, a professor of anthropology and Latin American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Hundreds, if not thousands, of artifacts leave Guatemala every year, said Palka, who joined Field Museum scholars in identifying the O'Hare artifact.

The problem in that country is twofold: looting and public confusion over the law concerning antiquities. People may keep for private display any ancient objects found on their own property, but they are supposed to register them, Palka said. But many people fail to register them and are unaware that they can't export the artifacts, he said.

Even more troubling, because the country is full of ruins, people clandestinely dig up sculptures to sell on the international art market, he said.

"Everyone is involved: looters, property owners, international art dealers," he said.

Colombia and Panama were known in pre-Columbian times for gold workmanship.

From The Chicago Tribune, submitted by Bob Bolek, Hometown, IL.


A Quran written in 1203, believed to be the oldest known complete copy, has sold for more than $2.3 million at an auction.

The holy book, which had been estimated to sell for up to $715,000, fetched $2,327,300 at auction in London, Christie's auction house said.

That was a record auction price for a Quran or any type of Islamic manuscript, Christie's said.

A nearly complete 10th Century Kufic Quran, thought to be from North Africa or the Near East, sold for $1,870,000.

Both were offered for sale by the Hispanic Society of America and were purchased by trade buyers in London, Christie's said.

The record-setting Quran was signed by Yahya bin Muhammad ibn 'Umar, dated June 1203.

It was acquired in Cairo in 1905 by Archer Milton Huntington, who founded the Hispanic Society in New York City in 1904. Huntington, the adopted son of railroad and ship-building magnate Collis Huntington, died in 1955.

From The Chicago Tribune, submitted by Bob Bolek, Hometown, IL.


In 1559, a hurricane sent up to seven Spanish sailing vessels to the bottom of Pensacola Bay, hampering Don Tristan de Luna's attempt to colonize this section of the Florida Panhandle.

Now, almost 500 years later, a second of those ships has been found, helping archaeologists learn about the settlement, which was abandoned in 1561. No trace of it has ever been found on land.

About 650 pieces of artifacts, mostly pieces of pottery and wood, were on display recently for about 100 people who gathered at the north end of the Pensacola Bay Bridge, about a half-mile from the shipwreck.

"It's an amazing site," said University of West Florida nautical archaeologist Gregory D. Cook.

Teams of West Florida archaeology students last summer discovered what they thought was the shipwreck, picking up pieces of artifacts from the site. A 32-by-24-foot barge covers the shipwreck site to give divers access.

"Our test excavations suggest that there is approximately 18 to 20 meters of preserved hull remaining on site, representing a small to medium-sized vessel in the fleet," Cook said.

Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning joined divers in taking a close look at the shipwreck partially buried in sand about 12 feet below the surface. Browning said it was "incredible" to touch something that's been down there for centuries.

"It was in good condition. As far as pieces of pottery, you could feel the bowls," he said.

He said the discovery is "another piece of the puzzle," of Florida's Spanish ancestry. He said he does not expect that the ship will be removed from the bay waters, however.

From the Tampa Tribune, submitted by Kenneth W. Reckart, Seffner, FL.


Officials at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City did not have to go far to find artifacts. Construction crews turned up fragments of old liquor bottles and other artifacts outside the museum.

The finds were made less than a week into a project to connect the museum- housed in the U.S. Mint building that produced coins from 1870 to 1885 and again from 1889 to 1893- with its annex.

Gene Hattori, the museum's curator of anthropology, said he anticipated the discoveries and made arrangements with Reyman Brothers Construction of Sparks before crews even started digging.

He and his assistant, Cindy Southerland, combed a four-foot-deep trench dug at the site of a pit where mint workers long ago buried some trash. The pit was located next to the former site of a steam boiler that once powered the coin presses.

"When they shut down at the end of the federal fiscal year, they'd replace the old boiler tubes, replace the coin dies and bury the trash," Hattori told the Nevada Appeal.

After careful probing last week, Hattori and Southerland found a number of items, including a piece of a crockery ale bottle and a glass stopper for a chemical bottle. Fragments of other liquor bottles also were found.

Also uncovered were a collection of steel barrel hoops, as well as a thick layer of charcoal. The latter was evidence of the fires that fueled the steam engine that powered the coin presses.

"And we did find a cast-iron rectangle; we do not know what it is," Hattori said.

Construction crews should expect to find historic artifacts when digging in downtown Carson City, he said.

"The early settlement dates back to the 1850s and '60s," he said. "If you dig anywhere in the area, you might find something."

Crews found something more disturbing a decade ago when they removed an old boiler behind the nearby Ormsby County Courthouse: a piece of a skull.

The skull, later determined to be that of a teenage girl who died more than 100 years ago, remains in the museum's collection.

From the Napa Register, submitted by Jerry R. Hallett, Napa, CA.

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