The S.S. Central America sunk in 1857, and 425 people did not make it off alive. But their artifacts have been recovered, and will be up for auction at a Saturday antiquities event in Reno.
When the steamer boat S.S. Central America left San Francisco for Panama in 1857, it was carrying $1.6 million worth of gold (in today’s dollars, that’s about $54.8 billion). It picked up even more gold once it hit Panama, and then headed for New York, because in those days, the quickest and most comfortable way to travel from San Francisco to New York was to sail all the way to Panama and back up to the East Coast.
The ship would not make it to New York. It sank in a hurricane off the Carolinas on September 12, 1857. Of the 578 passengers, 425 of them died, the deadliest U.S. maritime disaster to date at the time. And the loss of gold bound for New York banks fueled the Panic of 1857.
Since the recovery of sunken treasure began decades ago from an 1857 shipwreck off the coast of South Carolina, tens of millions of dollars worth of gold has been sold. https://t.co/NqQm54lMp7— KPIX 5 (@KPIXtv) December 1, 2022
All of that treasure laid at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean for 131 years, along with the artifacts of those who rode the boat. But a new AP report on KPIX informs us how many of those artifacts will be up for auction in Reno this Saturday, December 3.
Rare antique bottles retrieved from the S.S. Central America, which sank in 1857, will be auctioned Dec. 3 in Reno, Nev. https://t.co/Fe1bWtGNGr pic.twitter.com/Buly4ZbDqa— Kansas City Hop Talk 🍻 (@KCHopTalk) November 30, 2022
“The historical booty includes an 1849 Colt pocket pistol and 1850s paper currency recovered from the purser's safe; an illustrated 1849 edition of the novel The Count of Monte Cristo; and a metal-plate daguerreotype image of an unidentified woman who became known as the ‘Mona Lisa of the Deep,’” the AP reports. “There are gold nugget stick pins, luggage tags, passenger tickets, pocket watches, brooches, bloomers, Brooks Brothers shirts, a chastity belt, and even a case of beer bottles still full of beer.”
For the first time, hundreds of Gold Rush-era artifacts entombed in the S.S. Central America, known as the “Ship of Gold,” will go on public sale. https://t.co/CkAFk8ZlTb— Elko Daily FreePress (@ElkoDaily) December 1, 2022
The items expected to fetch the most at auction are the oldest known Wells Fargo treasure box, and one of the oldest pairs of Levi Strauss jeans in existence. That said, the AP reached out to Levi’s who said it was “speculation” that the jeans are actually Levi’s.
Not surprisingly, though, the proprietor of this auction disagrees. "The buttons are exactly the same - almost identical," Fred Holabird, president of Holabird Western Americana Collections in Reno. "The pattern's the same. Heavy cloth. There were no other pants like them."
But What about the gold?, you may ask. Oh, that’s quite a story too.
The gold was recovered in 1988, by a team using remote-operated vehicles, and led by treasure hunter Tommy Gregory Thompson. He immediately started selling the gold. But more than three dozen insurance companies sued him, saying it should be theirs, since they paid out insurance claims on it 130 years beforehand. In 1996, courts ruled that Thompson and his team were entitled to 90% of the gold.
But then his team’s investors and crew members sued Thompson in 2005 for not paying them out, at which point Thompson transferred millions into an offshore account in the Cook Islands, and promptly went into hiding for years. U.S. Marshals found him in 2015, and per the AP, he “has been in federal prison in Michigan since 2015.”
The S.S. Central America Gold Treasure Artifacts auction is Saturday, November 3, at Holabird Western Americana Collections in Reno, Nevada. You can view the items up for auction here.
Related: Near Old Ship Saloon, More Remnants Of Gold Rush Era Vessel Discovered [SFist]
Image: Holabird Americana