The greatest lost treasure in US history and the incredible story behind it
In February 2018 a spectacular array of gold ingots, coins, and more went on display, and on sale, in Long Beach, California. The treasure was part of a cargo of gold worth millions of dollars that went down with the SS Central America in 1857, in what remains America’s worst disaster at sea. Read on to discover the incredible story behind the sinking of the ‘Ship of Gold’ and salvage operation, and why the treasure hunter who discovered the shipwreck in 1988 is now in jail.
The story starts on 24 August 1857 when the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company announced that its New York offices had stopped payments, sending shockwaves through the entire US financial industry. Concerned that the collapse of the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company would set off a domino effect and potential run on the banks, several financial institutions banded together and arranged for an unprecedented cargo of Californian gold to be transported from Panama to New York (pictured).
The gold was required to prop up the banks and calm the nerves of jittery investors. The voyage was finalized and, on 3 September 1857, the SS Central America left Panama carrying 477 passengers, 101 crew and a jaw-dropping 9.1 metric tons of gold valued at $2 million, the equivalent of hundreds of millions in today’s money.
The massive paddle wheel steamer, which was captained by the illustrious William Lewis Herndon, set sail on calm waters and made a stop-off at Havana, Cuba on schedule and without incident. Several days into the voyage, the wind ominously picked up and the sea began to get choppy.
On 9 September 1857, every seafarer’s worst nightmare came to pass, and the SS Central America sailed right into a Category 2 hurricane off the coast of the Carolinas. The tempest raged on relentlessly. By 11 September, the furious winds had severely damaged the ship.
The sails had been ripped to shreds and the bow was taking in water. The SS Central America was effectively doomed when the boiler stopped working. The crew frantically tried to fix it during a lull in the hurricane but to no avail, and the ship began to list. The following day, a rescue by a passing ship was attempted but abandoned due to the atrocious weather conditions, though several lifeboats were successfully launched. The SS Central America sank at 8pm that evening.
All in all, 425 people perished in the sinking, making it the worst disaster at sea in American history. A total of 53 people survived, three of whom were plucked from a lifeboat a week after the tragedy.
On top of the devastating loss of life, the sinking contributed to the Panic of 1857, a run on the banks and ensuing financial crisis that the ship’s precious cargo was meant to prevent. The impact of the downturn was felt worldwide, and the Panic of 1857 is considered the first real global economic crisis.
Fast forward to the late 20th century, and shipwreck-crazy treasure hunter Tommy Gregory Thompson (pictured) had become obsessed with finding the ship and its gold. The ocean engineer from Ohio spent years analyzing the route of the vessel and developing the technology to seek it out. By 1988, Thompson and his team were 100% convinced they’d worked out the rough location of the wreck and Thompson persuaded investors to part with $12.5 million to finance an extensive search and salvage operation.
It wasn’t long before Thompson achieved his goal. On 11 September 1988, the wreck was finally located at a depth of 7,200 feet about 160 miles off the coast of South Carolina by Nemo, a vessel operated by Thompson’s Columbus-America Discovery Group.
Thompson set about finding the gold and had no trouble pinpointing it. From 1988 to 1991, the ocean expert recovered thousands of gold bars, coins and other precious artifacts worth tens of millions of dollars. Still, the haul only represented about 5% of the total lost booty.
Getting wind of the discovery, which was highly publicized, 35 insurance companies that were in operation in 1857, and paid out damages at the time, put a claim on the gold and filed suit. The legal battle dragged on until 1996. The judge eventually awarded in favor of the Columbus-America Discovery Group, granting the organization 92% of the gold.
By this point Thompson himself had drawn the ire of his investors, who claimed they hadn’t received a return on the money they’d put into the operation.
To make matters worse, Thompson sold hundreds of gold bars and thousands of coins to the California Gold Marketing Group in 2000, netting around $50 million. The sale included the world’s most valuable gold ingot, worth $8 million. Two of the investors teamed up to sue Thompson in 2005. They were joined a year later by members of the crew, who claimed they’d been cheated out of money too. Instead of facing the music, Thompson fled to Florida and hunkered down.
On the run
In 2012, a warrant was issued for Thompson’s arrest and the treasure hunter, now a wanted fugitive, went on the run along with his girlfriend Alison Antekeier. The pair were eventually found hiding in a Boca Raton hotel room in 2015 with $6,500 in cash and four cellphones, and taken into custody. Antekeier revealed that she had transported the 500 gold coins over a period of four years between California and Jacksonville, before Thompson asked her to bring them to a self-storage unit in Fort Lauderdale. She then testified that she handed the coins, contained in four to five briefcases, over to a stranger.
Thompson was extradited to Ohio and brought in front of a judge in 2016. The treasure hunter was questioned about the whereabouts of 500 missing gold coins, not to mention the proceeds of the $50 million sale in 2000. Thompson told the judge the coins were in held in trust in Belize but wouldn’t divulge their precise location, and that the $50 million he’d received from the sale in 2000 had been swallowed up by legal fees and outstanding loans that were taken out to finance the salvage operation.
Unimpressed, the judge held Thompson in contempt and the hapless treasure hunter was put behind bars. To add to his woes, Thompson is being fined $1,000 a day until he reveals the whereabouts of the missing booty. This is on top of the initial $250,000 fine he received for refusing to reveal the location of the coins.
In the meantime, Odyssey Marine Exploration was awarded the contract to salvage the wreck in 2014 and has been busily searching and recovering more treasure from the SS Central America.
By 2018, the firm had recovered an impressive 16,000 precious artifacts, including 3,100 gold coins, 45 gold bars, and 80 pounds of gold dust, which were sold to California Gold Marketing Group, the company that acquired Thompson’s booty in 2000.
Luckily, this time around the investors did see a return. California Gold Marketing Group paid the original investors, or their estates given that a number have died, a total of $30 million for the treasure.
The treasure was exhibited in Long Beach in February 2018 before going under the hammer, with total proceeds from the sale expected to top $50 million. Nearly all of the 3,129 gold coins were snapped up by buyers before the year was out.
Selling like hotcakes
Gold salvaged from the shipwreck continues to fetch high prices at auction today. The most recent of the ship’s precious metal finds to have sold was a 7.67 ounce Justh & Hunter ingot (pictured), which went for $66,000 through Heritage Auctions in August last year.
Not all that glitters is gold
Most of the buzz around the SS Central America was based on its gold contents, but 2019 saw some of its impressive silver wares emerge too. Silver dimes found ranged in date from 1796 to 1857 and 99.9% of them were bought up by Kenny Duncan Sr. from U.S. Coins in Houston, according to the California Gold Marketing Group. The coins have started to make their way onto the market too.
Rare coins galore
In December 2019, nine particularly rare coins of the same age as the coin pictured were confirmed to have been found among the wreck. Only 38 examples of these 1856-S quarter dollars were known to exist before these were discovered. They are identifiable through the large ‘s’ over a smaller ‘s’ mint mark. Most of the coins were found among a pouch of 503 silver dollars, in just one small part of this trove of treasures, and the rarest of the dimes found so far is thought to be worth up to an incredible $75,000.