Subscribe now!

Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (10/2008) Headlines (05/2008) Headlines (12/2008)   Vol. 42 October 2008 
Treasure In The Headlines
As seen in the October 2008 edition of W&ET Magazine


Just before Mike DeMar realized he found a rare and priceless treasure, he thought the 385-year-old gold chalice from a wrecked Spanish fleet was a far more common item.

"I thought I was digging a beer can that the metal detector hit," said the 20-year-old treasure diver, who happened upon the object just after 9:30 a.m. "I couldn't see any gold until I pulled it out. The sediment cleared away. The gold started to shine. Time just stopped down there under water. I thought: 'Oh my God.'"

The chalice= more than a pound of nearly pure gold= came to rest around the spot when the Santa Margarita sank in the Sept. 6, 1622, hurricane about 30 miles off Key West in about 20 feet of water.

Intricately carved with elegant scrolling handles, the chalice has only one peer: a handled cup salvaged in 1973 off the nearby Nuestra Senora de Atocha, the Margarita's sister ship. In all, at least eight vessels in the 28-ship fleet sank with so much treasure that it helped bankrupt the Spanish empire. The Atocha has yielded so much gold, silver and gems salvaged over the past 30 years that it accounts for the largest Spanish treasure-find in the world.

Finding the Atocha wreck was an obsession of the late Mel Fisher and his team of divers. And as this recent find showed, there's more to be had.

DeMar dives for Blue Water Ventures, a subcontractor with Fisher's salvaging empire that controls the treasure site near the Marquesas Keys. The salvagers hunt for treasure by directing a ship's propeller-wash downward to help clear out sediment on wreck sites that stretch for miles in brightly colored shallows that look like gems themselves. Some of the finds are small, such as a recently found four-inch gold ornament with a toothpick at one end and an earwax scoop at the other.

But that object pales in comparison to the chalice.

Dented on a few sides and encrusted with marine growth, the chalice was carried to and from the Mel Fisher Maritime in the most understated of fashions: A plastic-lidded measuring container from the grocery store. Don Kincaid, a museum board member and long-time diver and photographer, was enthralled with the find.

"The inevitable question is how much is it worth= well, it's priceless. How much you got?" Kincaid said laughing.

"When you touch something like this, it's like a time machine. You go back in time. This was 380 years dead until this kid found it. And it was brought back to life," Kincaid said. "Who knows who made it? When they clean it, there's no telling if there's a family crest inside and what it will say. It could have the design of the Last Supper. Who knows? It could be anything. But we know it's a priceless part of our past."

Kincaid should know. He said his life was changed forever when, as a young man, he found a rare gold chain on the Atocha site.

Kincaid points out that the Santa Margarita sank two years after the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

At year's end, the divers and companies will divvy up the treasure, and DeMar will likely get a bonus, though he won't keep the chalice. That's fine with DeMar. A day after his find, DeMar was almost as giddy as when he first held the chalice under the water and showed diver master Chris Rackley.

"We were dancing and screaming under water. I could barely keep the regulator in my mouth," DeMar said. "It's amazing. But it still hasn't sunk in."

From The Associated Press, submitted by Tom Rifleman, San Antonio, TX.


Dan Deming had heard rumors abut buried treasure on his central Wisconsin farm. He made halfhearted attempts to find it, and then searched in earnest for a few years after receiving a metal detector.

"I don't know what I thought, if I thought it was really there or not," he said.

The mystery ended recently while Deming was tearing down a 100-year-old shed on his property near Briggsville, WI. A rusted box tumbled from the rubble, and wads of old currency spilled onto the ground.

"I couldn't believe it. I started running to the house with it," said Deming. "My wife thought I broke my arm, because I was just hooting and hollering."

The bills were so deteriorated that it was hard to count the money. The box also contained scraps of newspaper with dollar amounts written on them, a possible tally of the loot. Deming said the bills were dated between 1928 and 1934.

He considered selling the bills to collectors, but the money was in poor condition. Instead, he turned it over to the U.S. Treasury's Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which redeems mutilated currency for face value, he said.

"I'm hoping it'll be for $1,700, because that's what the paper said," Deming said. "It's hard to say, though. It's really difficult to tell what was in there."

The legend of the buried treasure dates back more than 40 years.

"I heard from my grandfather that a man who lived here during the '30s and '40s was eccentric and might have stashed money," Deming said.

From The Arizona Republic, submitted by Vic Mathis, Tempe, AZ, Thomas Rifleman, San Antonio, TX, Jean Kary, Norris, SD and Bob Bolek.


Spain formally laid claim recently to a shipwreck that yielded a $500 million treasure, saying it has proof the vessel was Spanish.

Officials demanded the return of the booty recovered last year by a U.S. deep-sea exploration firm, saying the 19th century shipwreck at the heart of the dispute is the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes= a Spanish warship sunk by the British navy southwest of Portugal in 1804 with more than 200 people on board.

Tampa, Florida based Odyssey Marine Exploration recently disputed Spain's claim. In May 2007, Odyssey announced that it had discovered a wreck in the Atlantic= and its cargo of 500,000 silver coins and other artifacts worth an estimated $500 million.

At the time, Odyssey said it did not know which ship it was, and flew the treasures back to Tampa without Spain's knowledge, from an airport on the British colony of Gibraltar on Spain's southwestern tip.

The company said that there isn't enough evidence to prove the vessel is the Mercedes. Officials said in a company statement that they found only cargo from a shipwreck, not the actual vessel.

The Spanish government filed evidence in a Tampa federal court to support its claim.

"We are talking about the remains of a Spanish navy vessel and the human remains of Spanish naval servicemen who died on board which have been illegally disturbed," Culture Ministry Director General Jose Jimenez said.

"It is the property of the Spanish navy, government and people, and we want it all back," said Adm. Teodoro de Leste Contreras, who runs a naval museum owned by the ministry.

Washington-based lawyer James Goold, representing the Spanish government in the case, said U.S. Judge Mark Pizzo will convene the two parties to review the case before deciding who gets to keep the treasure.

Goold said at a Madrid news conference that he expected Odyssey would keep "not a penny" of the salvage.

In its statement, Odyssey officials said they are surprised the Spanish government has conclusively said "the 'Black Swan' treasure is from the Mercedes after viewing site photomosaics and video that show no hull, ballast pile, keel or vessel, and only a statistically insignificant sample of the coins from the site."

Naval and coin experts say they have proof that the treasure, now held in a warehouse in Tampa, came from the Mercedes. The coins included gold doubloons, or "pieces of eight," minted in 1803 in Lima, Peru, bearing the image of Spain's King Carlos IV, ministry coin expert Carmen Marcos said.

But Odyssey officials said that if the coins are found to be from the Mercedes, it will be "up to the U.S. District Court to determine the final disposition of the Black Swan treasure," according to the statement.

The Mercedes exploded and sank in a naval battle as it sailed back to Spain from South America.

Spain argues that the entire treasure should be returned because naval vessels remain the property of the nation that flagged them, regardless of where they lie, under the principle of sovereign immunity.

"Spain has not abandoned or otherwise relinquished in any way its ownership of Mercedes," Spain's petition said.

Spain's claim said artifacts on the seabed, their distribution and other characteristics, as well as artifacts taken by Odyssey, "further identify the site as the remains of Mercedes."

Odyssey also said the ship was probably the Mercedes after Pizzo last month forced the company to disclose information on the salvage, including the identity of the ship and its location.

From Science News, submitted by Barry W. Wainwright, Forked River, NJ.


A new book by an Arizona computer consultant claims to have uncovered the only known photo of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith, but some experts are skeptical it really is the Mormon prophet.

S. Michael Tracy has been analyzing historical data about Smith's physical appearance, including an extensive examination of the LDS leader's death mask, since first seeing the photo in 1994. Though the image is strikingly different from known portraits of Smith, Tracy is convinced the man in the photo is the man who established The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830 as a 25-year-old in New York and was murdered by a mob in an Illinois jail in 1844. Tracy also explored Smith's possible countenance in In Search of Joseph, a book he wrote under the name Shannon M. Tracy, and sees his research as supporting his own Mormon faith.

LDS officials declined to confirm the photo's authenticity.

"On the basis of available evidence, it is not possible to confirm that the image is in fact, of Joseph Smith," LDS spokesman Scott Trotter said in a statement first issued recently.

The photo, known as a daguerreotype, belongs to the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), which has its own team of experts studying it.

"If scholarly proof of identity satisfies rigorous internal guidelines, Community of Christ may make a statement concerning its authenticity," spokeswoman Jennifer Kilpack said.

But other experts have no such hesitation.

"It took me three seconds after looking at this image and I knew it couldn't be Joseph Smith," said Dennis Waters, a New Hampshire dealer who owns the country's largest collection of daguerreotype portraits from those years.

Waters, who has not seen the actual daguerreotype, just copies of it, had three main critiques: the photo's quality was too good to have been taken before Smith died in 1844; even if it were taken as early as 1839, Smith would have been 34 and the man in the photo was clearly younger than that, and the suit the person was wearing was not fashionable until about 1846.

Tracy believes he has answers to every objection and they are in his book, Millions Shall Know Brother Joseph Again: The Joseph Smith Photograph, produced recently by a small Salt Lake City press, Eborn Publishing.

On the age question, Tracy said Smith was often described by others as looking younger than his years.

"They talked about his 'youthful' countenance," Tracy said, adding that the photo was a tad out of focus, which might have obscured Smith's receding hairline.

He disputes Waters' statements about the daguerreotype technology's development, insisting that high quality photos were available as early as 1839.

In addition, Tracy's experts say that Smith bought a couple of new suits before he died that could have matched the suit in the photo.

What really convinced Tracy, though, were what he said are 32 points of alignment between the face in the photo and Smith's death mask.

Smith had a reclining forehead, his left eyebrow was substantially lower than his right and his left cheekbone was flatter than his right.

"When I first was involved in it, I was going to try to disprove it," Tracy said. "There were some unique features on Joseph's face that are like a thumbprint. When we saw those in this photo, we needed to take it up seriously."

He is not attached to the image, Tracy insisted, and welcomes critics to bring their questions.

"You don't have to believe this," he said. "Before you criticize, at least review the data. We hope this will start the conversation."

From The Salt Lake Tribune, submitted by Don Moore, Salt Lake City, UT.


The businessman arrived at the Treasury Department carrying a suitcase stuffed with about $5.2 million. The bills were decomposing, nearly unrecognizable, and he asked to swap them for a cashier's check. He said the money came from Mexico.

Money like this normally arrives in an armored truck or insured shipping container after a bank burns or a vault floods. It doesn't just show up at the visitor's entrance on a Tuesday morning. But the banking habits of Franz Felhaber had stopped making sense to the government long ago.

For the past few years, authorities say, he and his family have popped in and out of U.S. banks, looking to change about $20 million in buried treasure for clean cash.

The money is always the same= decaying $100 bills from the 1970s and 1980s.

It's the story that keeps changing:

It was an inheritance.

Somebody dug up a tree and there it was.

It was found in a suitcase buried in an alfalfa field.

A relative found a treasure map.

No matter where it came from or who found it, that buried treasure stands to make someone rich. It could also send someone to jail.

Felhaber is a customs broker, a middleman.

His company, F.C. Felhaber & Co., is just minutes away from the bridge between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Tens of billions of dollars of Mexican goods cross that bridge each year, aided by people such as Felhaber who navigate the customs bureaucracy.

Customs brokers don't own the stuff that comes into the United States. They just make sure it gets here.

So it is with the $20 million. Felhaber says the money is not his. A Mexican relative, Francisco Javier Ramos Saenz-Pardo, merely sought help exchanging money that had been buried for decades, Felhaber says.

"To be very clear on this matter: In the beginning, I was not told what it was," Felhaber said in one of several telephone interviews with The Associated Press.

Money petrifies after sitting underground that long and Felhaber said it looked like a brick of adobe. The Treasury will exchange even badly damaged money, but Felhaber said Saenz-Pardo did not want to handle the process himself.

"Imagine a Mexican family bringing money that is damaged and the government calling it a drug deal," Felhaber said.

If the goal were to avoid unwarranted attention, he went about it all wrong. Rather than making a simple= albeit large= exchange at the Treasury, Felhaber allegedly began trying to exchange smaller amounts at El Paso-area banks, raising suspicion every time.

The first stop was the Federal Reserve Bank in El Paso, where authorities say Felhaber appeared with an uncle, Jose, and an aunt, Esther. In her purse, Esther carried $120,000. She told bank officials there were millions more, discovered while digging to expand a building in Juarez, according to U.S. court records filed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Banks normally refer such requests to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, an arm of the Treasury. But employees worried that, with so much cash, the three might be robbed on their way home. So, the bank accepted the money and wired $120,000 to an account in his uncle's name, Jose Carrillo-Valles, according to a government affidavit.

Felhaber was back at it again weeks later, this time at a Bank of America branch. Customs officials say he unsuccessfully tried to persuade a bank vice president to dispatch an armored truck to the Mexican border to pick up millions of dollars.

Felhaber denies that conversation took place. But he is tough to pin down on details. At times he seems specific on a point ("There is a $20 million inheritance,") only to contradict himself minutes later, saying the amount is "nowhere near that" and he has no idea where the money came from.

Soon after the Bank of America visit, a man bearing a striking resemblance to Felhaber walked into a Bank of the West branch. This time, however, authorities say the customer identified himself as Ken Motley and said he discovered millions while excavating a tree in Chihuahua, Mexico.

Bank employees refused to exchange any money, despite two follow-up phone calls, once with a Spanish accent, once without= try to set up an exchange.

The mysterious Ken Motley also appeared at the First National Bank, telling employees that a friend had discovered $20 million buried in an alfalfa field, investigators say.

Felhaber says he is not Ken Motley.

Customs investigators say a Bank of the West employee identified Felhaber's picture as that of Ken Motley.

"That's an absolute lie," Felhaber said. "That would be a horrendous miscarriage of justice."

It's unclear which transaction caught investigators' attention. Most of the tens of thousands of exchanges of mutilated money each year are routine. Natural disasters create a lot of inquiries. Children of the Depression have kept money out of banks, only to see it eaten by rodents in their attics or destroyed in fires. A surprising number of people accidentally shred greeting cards with money inside.

But authorities say there are warning signs that trigger investigations. Making a series of small exchanges is one. Bringing mutilated money from abroad is another.

"That is one of the things we are extra concerned about: This process being used to launder money from illegal activities," said Leonard R. Olijar, the chief financial officer of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. "That's one of our factors that we use to make a case suspicious."

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents questioned Felhaber in October 2005. According to a government summary of that interview, Felhaber said he believed the money was the result of a 1970s Mexican land deal. The money was buried in a coffin, he said, until Saenz-Pardo= the relative who brought him the money in the first place= discovered a map leading him to the buried treasure.

Felhaber said he didn't want to do anything illegal and was merely getting a cut of whatever he exchanged.

He now says he was mistaken in his interviews with investigators.

"I told them, 'I suspect this is where it's from but I didn't know,'" he said. "They take you to your word like you're supposed to remember every single thing every single time."

Maybe it was the visit from investigators or maybe someone realized the bank visits weren't working, but Felhaber apparently changed strategies.

In January 2006, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing received a package containing about $136,000 from Jose Carrillo-Valles, Felhaber's uncle. Felhaber's business was listed as the return address. The letter explained the money had been stored in a basement for 22 years.

Though customs officials were suspicious by then, there was no clear evidence of a crime, just a lot of unanswered questions. So, two months later, the Treasury mailed a check, which was deposited into Carrillo-Valles' account.

Following the money, investigators interviewed Carrillo-Valles and his wife. Each denied ever sending or receiving the money, according to a government affidavit.

As for the $120,000 wired to Jose's account from the Federal Reserve a year earlier, they allegedly said it was an inheritance. Esther said Jose's mother had recently died.

Authorities don't believe the inheritance story. For starters, they say Jose's mother was still alive when the $120,000 was exchanged. They also traced a wire transfer from Jose's account to someone named Saenz-Pardo shortly after it was deposited.

Customs investigators now believed Carrillo-Valles was acting as an intermediary, taking a cut of the money and sending the rest to Saenz-Pardo or someone else in Mexico.

Twice, reporters called Carrillo-Valles on his cell phone to ask about the arrangement and confirm his discussions with investigators. First, he said he did not speak English. When a Spanish-speaking reporter called back, he said he could not hear her, and hung up.

In April 2007, the case moved from being suspicious to becoming a criminal investigation. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials called the Justice Department, saying Felhaber had just arrived in person at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing with about $1.2 million.

It's not illegal to find money. Depending on where it's found, there might be a bureaucratic process to follow taxes to be paid, but the discovery itself is not a crime. There are strict rules, however, about bringing money into the United States.

Import documents identified the $1.2 million as belonging to Jose Carrillo-Valles. Based on their investigation so far, authorities believe that was a lie= a violation that carries up to five years in prison.

But Washington federal prosecutor William Cowden decided to wait. Maybe Felhaber would return with even more.

It paid off. This April, Felhaber was back at the Treasury, this time with a suitcase containing $5.2 million. Investigators say they have found no import documents filed for this deal, a violation of cash smuggling laws that also carries up to five years in prison.

Prosecutors moved in. Felhaber's two Treasury visits gave them probable cause to seize the money= both the $1.2 million and the $5.2 million.

They told a federal magistrate in June that they suspected it was all drug money that had been buried or hidden inside a wall for decades.

"Given that the money is coming north from Mexico, that both conflicting and cockamamie stories have been told about its origins, and that all the stories of how it got to be found are fantastical, I strongly suspect that the Felhaber currency is the proceeds of illegal bulk narcotics sales," ICE investigator Stephen A. Schneider told the magistrate.

Felhaber says he's still not sure what all the fuss is about. At times he says he has no idea where the money came from, but he is always certain it has nothing to do with drugs.

None of the documents filed in federal court accuses Felhaber or his relatives of being involved in drugs. They leave open the possibility that somebody merely came across a cache of drug money, forgotten or abandoned in the Mexican desert.

In the coming weeks, the Justice Department plans to seek criminal forfeiture of the seized $6.4 million. That means Felhaber and his family will have the opportunity to come to Washington to ask for their money back.

If they do, they'll have to explain where it came from. And they'll have to sort through some of the inconsistent stories for a federal judge. Felhaber bristles at the suggestion there have been inconsistencies.

"The story has never changed," he said. "I don't know how it's changed."

Cowden, the federal prosecutor, said he doesn't know what to expect.

"Some of these cases, nobody ever comes forward," he said. If so, the buried treasure will become government property.

Or at least some of it. Perhaps there is another $14 million out there, muddy and waiting to be exchanged.

Does Felhaber know if there's any money left?

On that, it's hard to get a straight answer.

From The Associated Press, submitted by Jeff Kehl, Avon, MN.

Copyright © 1995 - 2015 People's Publishing. All rights reserved on entire contents; nothing may be reprinted, or displayed on another web page, without the prior written consent of the publisher.


Go to top of page

Western & Eastern Treasures Magazine Silver&Gold Best Finds W&ET BookMart W&ET Archives Put some treasure on your coffee table! Subscribe! Subscribe To Western & Eastern Treasures Magazine Find W&ET Near You Silver & Gold Makes a Great Gift!