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Out of wreckage, lives emerge

By William J. Broad
New York Times
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    RECOVERY LIMITED PARTNERSHIP - NYT
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    RECOVERY LIMITED PARTNERSHIP - NYT
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A treasure-laden ship that has lain silent on the Atlantic seabed for more than 150 years is giving up some of its secrets, as explorers who have revisited it for the first time in two decades detail in reports on their recovery operations.

The sunken hulk, off the South Carolina coast, has so far given up 45 gold bars, 47 pieces of gold jewelry, more than 2,000 gold coins and some 11,500 silver coins.

Other retrieved items, including a pair of glasses, speak of the lives lost.

Eerily, the explorers found some 60 ambrotypes, a kind of early photograph on glass plates. The photographs, which are being left in the ship’s debris field until a conservation plan can be devised, portray miners and in one case a man and woman, their portrait set off by an oval mat.

The ship, the SS Central America, was steaming for New York in September 1857 when a hurricane sent it down with 425 people and tons of California gold aboard. The bones of the side-wheeler were discovered in 1988 more than a mile beneath the waves. But dreams of fabulous wealth fell apart as insurers and angry investors also filed claims.

After the original finder fled and became a legal fugitive in 2012, a court in Ohio appointed a receiver charged with recovering as much treasure as possible for creditors and duped investors. The receiver hired a company to revisit the shipwreck.

On April 15, the company, Odyssey Marine Exploration of Tampa, Florida, lowered a robot to the site and brought up five gold bars weighing 66 pounds – the metal alone is worth about $1.2 million, but could fetch even more as artifacts. The preliminary step opened a new chapter meant to raise the remaining treasure and explore the shipwreck.

To date, Odyssey has filed three monthly reports on its recovery efforts with the court-appointed receiver, Ira O. Kane, a Columbus, Ohio, lawyer and businessman. The legal action centers on Columbus because the ship’s discoverer who later fled the law, Thomas G. Thompson, made that city his base of operations.

Odyssey’s reports are laced with color photographs of the wreckage and treasure, on the bottom and in conservation. The largest gold bar recovered to date measures about 10 inches long and weighs roughly 22 pounds – worth about $415,000 as metal at current prices.

The jewelry includes a gold puzzle ring. Its six interconnected loops – as is usual for rings of this type, which jewelers devised centuries ago, often as wedding rings – come apart readily but are difficult to put together again, forming a mechanical puzzle of complex design. Its closure device features a motif of clasping hands.

“The gold gets the headlines,” Kane said in a statement. But the archaeological finds and scientific discoveries, he added, “will deliver significant educational benefits for years to come.”

A major find still lying on the bottom is a large iron safe, its door corroded after more than a century in briny seawater. The exploratory team directed its large tethered robot, equipped with a manipulator arm, to open the door.

The safe contained several packages, which the robot removed. Two small packets, tied with twine and sealed with red wax, “appear to be filled with paper” and have been put in safekeeping “until they can be opened and studied in a proper conservation laboratory,” a report noted.

Other items found in the safe include a pistol and two cotton garments wrapped tightly around gold coins and gold nuggets.

A pouch on one garment came open and produced a small fortune in gold coins known as double eagles, which had a face value of $20 apiece in the 19th century. Today, coins of similar provenance are sold online for $9,500 to $110,000 each. The pouch held 134 of the coins.

Exploration of the debris field also yielded a sextant, a navigational device used to determine the angle between a celestial object and the horizon. The last of the three monthly reports said the instrument may have been used to fix the position of the Central America “until she sank.”

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