Thursday, November 20, 2008

Shipwreck and Treasure of the S.S. New York

The SS New York was a sidewheel steamship that, during the 1840s, regularly shuttled passengers and cargo between Galveston, Texas and New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1846, just a few months after the Republic of Texas joined the Union as the 28th state and the start of the Mexican-American War, the SS New York set sail on September 5 from Galveston headed for New Orleans carrying 53 passengers and crew along with an estimated $40,000 - a numismatic value in the millions today - in gold and silver coins.

The Storm

Early morning on September 7 found the ship caught in the throes of a hurricane fighting to survive. Water began filling the hold through a split in the side of the
hull. As the ship began tilting, passengers and crew worked together to bail out the hold. Eventually the storm won the battle as water overtook the boilers and the fires went out. Passengers and crew grabbed anything that could float. As though the archangel Michael was announcing his arrival, a single note rang out from the ship's bell as the ship rolled one last time and sank.

The next day, 36 of the 53 passengers and crew aboard were rescued by another ship. 17 people perished including five children. A treasure in gold and silver coins sank to the bottom of the Gulf with the ship. The story of the ship's sinking was soon lost and obscured by sensational stories of battles fought in the Mexican-American War.

The Discovery

While exploring a shipwreck in 1990 that he thought was the SS New York, Louisiana resident Avery Munson found an 1827 British gold sovereign and two 1843 silver half dollars. The coins were an encouraging sign that Avery and some friends had found the remains of the SS New York. But, it would be another four years before the group found the ship's bell confirming the wreck as that of the SS New York.

The Treasure

After taking title to the shipwreck, the group of friends, now calling themselves the Gentlemen of Fortune, had recovered over 400 gold coins and over 2,000 silver coins by the end of 2007. A decade had passed since the group had first found the wreck. Now finally, a treasure with a face value of about $40,000 when the ship sank now had a numismatic value of millions to the Gentlemen of Fortune. It was finally time for the group to cash in.

The Auction

The first public offering of SS New York coins occurred on July 27, 2008. A Stack's auction offered the finest examples of the coins to collectors. The coins offered
can be viewed in the auction archives at stacks.com. (Lots 2001 - 2841) A few of the coins have been graded as the finest known example by Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC). A month earlier on June 16, 2008, NGC released the population report of SS New York coins.

Stack's held a second auction on July 30, 2009 offering additional coins and artifacts from from the shipwreck.

If there were any doubts about collectors placing a premium on shipwreck coins, those doubts were put to rest as the final hammer price for most of the coins well exceeded the values of similar coins without the shipwreck pedigree. The Gentlemen finally found their fortune.

Sources

"Shipwreck Yields Gold." Numismatic News vol. 57, no. 22 (May 27, 2008).

Stack's (Firm). The Collection of Samuel J. Berngard and Treasure Coins of the S.S. New York: auction sale, July 27-28, 2008, at Baltimore, Maryland. New York: Stack's, 2008.

Austin Rare Coins. "S.S. New York Steamer Rare U.S. Coins Recovered From Shipwreck." (June 19, 2008) http://shipwrecks.ws/ss_NewYork_Shipwreck.htm (accessed September 15, 2008).

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