Auction of sunken treasures brings back fond memories

By Jeff Fournier

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by sunken treasures and the incredible searches that have been undertaken by modern day treasure hunters who have spent millions of dollars using the latest in high tech equipment to unearth the ‘motherlode’.

Recently, Florida auction house and coin dealer Daniel Frank Sedwick LLC announced they would be offering items recovered from shipwrecks in the firms, “Treasure, World, U.S. Coin & Paper Auction number 21,” which is scheduled for May 3 and May 4.

Front and centre in the sale is a large silver bar weighing in at over 83 pounds and having a pre-sale estimate of more than $35,000 US.

Now, that’s a lot of money; but when it comes to sunken treasures and past auctions of fantastical treasures, it wasn’t overly impressive to me at first – that is, until I found out a little bit more about this piece. The silver bar is among thousands of silver bars recovered from one of the most well-known shipwrecks of all time, the Nuestra Señora de Atocha.

The Nuestra Señora de Atocha set sail in 1622 from the harbor in Havana, Cuba, laden with magnificent treasures destined for the King of Spain. As the vessel passed through the waters of the Florida Keys, it met head on with a hurricane and ultimately sank to the bottom of the sea, taking with it 260 passengers. Only five lucky souls survived to recount the horror of the catastrophe.

For hundreds of years, the Atocha lay undisturbed, 55 feet below the ocean’s floor, amongst fantastic treasures which it had carried including hundreds of gold bars and chains, tons of silver, mountains of Spanish silver “pieces-of-eight” and an almost unimaginable array of emeralds and precious artifacts created by highly skilled craftsman of the day.

It lay undisturbed, that is, until an adventurous chicken farmer turned treasure hunter named Mel Fisher became obsessed with finding the fabled wreck. And find it he did, to the tune of over 400 million dollars in precious cargo. Fisher’s search began in 1968 and for several years, a number of minor discoveries were made. But it wasn’t until 1985, that the mother lode was finally unearthed.

It was the discovery of a lifetime – any treasure hunter’s dream.

But Fisher had paid dearly for it. During the salvaging operations, he had gone nearly bankrupt, became embroiled in legal battles with the U.S. and Spanish governments over ownership rights and had lost three crew members – among them, a son.

That legal battle lasted for several years until Fisher’s find-of-a-lifetime became legally his in the early 1990s.

I had the pleasure of viewing quite an array of these treasures back in the ‘90s when some of the items made a stop-over at Birks Jewelers in Sudbury, Ont.

I was able to speak with John Dureen, one of the divers involved in the discovery of the sunken treasures; Pat Clyne – chief videographer of the diving expedition – and Kim Fisher, son of Mel, who also dove and took part in the historic operation.

Clyne offered an interesting presentation that day to an appreciative audience about the events leading up to the treasure’s discovery and handed out a fistful of statistics to highlight the magnitude of the find which included over 230,000 coins and over 1,000 silver bars.

It’s nice to be able to have a bit of a personal connection with an auction item like the 83 pound silver bar that will soon be auctioned off – even if the $35,000 estimate is just a bit beyond my means.

I’m still waiting for the discovery of the famed Oak Island treasure in Nova Scotia. But I’m not going to hold my breath on that one!

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