New Orleans Auction to offer gold relics from shipwreck, Dec. 11
NEW ORLEANS – On September 4, 1622, two Spanish fleets set sail from Havana harbor under the command of Marquis de Caderieita, their holds laden with the richesse of the New World. The first fleet (or “flota”), the Tierra Firma, had picked up treasures at Columbia, Panama and other ports in South America. The other, the New Spain flota, had collected its cargo along the coast of Mexico. The two convoys gathered in Cuba to make the return trip together, accompanied by heavily armed warships to protect the fleet against pirates and privateers. Bad weather and other problems delayed their planned July 1st departure until late in the season.
The 28 ships started on their usual route: through the Florida Straits, up the east coast of Florida to the latitude of Bermuda, then eastward home. Barely one day out, however, on September 6th in the Straits of Florida, disaster struck in the form of a massive hurricane. The ferocious storm scattered the fleet, capsizing some ships, slamming others into the Keys. Three galleons, five merchant naos and one patache were lost on the Keys, with two (or three) others lost in deeper waters.
When news of the disaster reached Spain, authorities sent another five ships to Florida in attempt to salvage two of the galleons, the Atocha and the Santa Margarita. Over a period of about 10 years, Spain was able to recover about half the treasure of the Santa Margarita, which was in shallow enough water to allow some salvage by breath-holding divers. Recovery from the Atocha, which had sunk in 55 feet, proved more difficult, and the rest – those private vessels lost in the deep waters of the Keys -were considered lost forever.
In the late 1960s, shrimpers working around the Dry Tortugas brought up in their nets a large ceramic amphora, later identified as a colonial-era Spanish olive jar. The location of the site was noted, but once again the cost of recovery at such a depth – 1300 feet – made futher exploration impractical. Not soon after, treasure hunter Mel Fisher (1922-1998) began his 16-year search for the Atocha, which he discovered on July 20, 1985 on the coral reefs 35 miles from Key West. The salvage produced a staggering amount of treasure: 40 tons of gold and silver bars, over 100,000 gold coins and precious Muzo emeralds. The discovery prompted a surge of interest in shipwreck salvage and advancements in the technology of deep-water recovery.
The olive jar dredged up in the ’60s was remembered, and on June 6, 1989, about 50 miles southwest of the Atocha site, an 83-foot, 190-ton deep-sea diving research vessel, the R.V. Seahawk (a one-time shrimp boat seized by the Coast Guard and sold in 1987 for $50,000 to ad and P.R. man Greg Stemm), used its video- and sonar-equipped unmanned Phantom DHD2 remotely-operated recovery vehicle to retrieve a 4.1 kilogram bronze bell from the ocean floor. It was labeled artifact number 89-1A-00001 and enabled Stemm and his partner John C. Morris to establish an admiralty claim for the site and allow their company, Seahawk Deep Ocean Technology Inc. (which went public in 1991), to begin salvaging the wreck, now called the ‘Dry Tortugas.’
Over the next two years, the Seahawk, equipped with a much more sophisticated remote vehicle, the Merlin, would recover over 17,000 artifacts from the Dry Tortugas site, including gold, silver, medallions, olive jars, astrolabes, gemstones and personal effects of the crew. Every artifact recovered was meticulously mapped and catalogued, with equal attention given to both the grandest treasure and the lowliest trinket. Recent research indicates that the wreck, a small 82-foot caravel, is that of the Nuestra Senora de la Consolacion, which the five survivors of the Atocha – three sailors and two slaves – saw suddenly “capsize and vanish into the angry ocean.”
Seahawk Deep Ocean Technology Inc. sold the bulk of the collection for $2.4 million in 1998 to Treasure and Exhibits International, formerly Vanderbilt Square, which had earlier purchased Michael’s International Treasure Jewelry, Inc., a Key West museum/store where the treasure was being exhibited. T.E.I. soon ran into finiancial difficulty, however, and was forced to sell the collection, some of which was offered at an auction held on June 5-6, 1999 by Jay Sugarman Auctioneers in Miami, Florida. Many items were purchased by original Seahawk investors, but the sale allowed some of the artifacts to enter private collections.
It is from one such collection that New Orleans Auction Galleries will be offering items from the Dry Tortugas site, in their Dec. 11 sale. Included are four high-karat gold bars totaling over five troy pounds and a rare, uncompromised six-strand 21K gold money chain. Also offered is a large, intact olive jar, not unlike the one dredged up in the 1960s that began the hunt for the Nuestra Senora de la Consolacion. Each of these amazing treasures, remarkably preserved by the ocean depths for nearly four centuries, represents a unique piece of history of the New World and the Gulf South, and a tangible and direct link to the ancient ghosts of conquest.
Internet live bidding for New Orleans Auction Galleries’ Dec. 8-11 sale will be provided by LiveAuctioneers.com. To view the fully illustrated catalog and sign up to bid absentee or live via the Internet, visit www.LiveAuctioneers.com.
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