Ship Treasure Returns to California After 160 Years in Ocean

Recovered double eagle gold coins recovered from the SS Central America on display at the Long Beach Convention Center. (Nathan Solis, Courthouse News Service)

LONG BEACH, Calif. (CN) – A shipment of 19th century California gold took the long way home after a shipwreck stranded the treasure on the bottom of the ocean in 1857, only to be recovered and displayed at a trade show in Southern California about 160 years later.

About $40 million in gold coins, dust and bars were displayed inside a mock-ship on the convention show floor. The cargo was aboard the S.S. Central America that sank more than 150 nautical miles off the coast of North Carolina in 1857.

More than 400 men and teenage boys died in the shipwreck and about 150 people were able to survive, according to Robert Evans, chief scientist who participated in the expedition to find the ship in 1988 and the recovery of the bulk of the treasure in 2014.

On Friday, he greeted guests as they peered at the coins he meticulously cleaned for California Gold Marketing Group. They included 3,100 U.S. gold coins, more than 1,000 U.S. silver coins and 45 gold ingots. There were also 1,000 ounces of gold dust recovered from the shipwreck

“In essence, we take them back to the shipwreck with this,” Evans said as he motioned to a hand-sewn sack of gold dust found in a saddlebag that was submerged in a tank of water. The sack sat on a bed of gold dust, just like it was found on the ocean floor.

Robert Evans, chief scientist who participated in the recovery of the sunken treasure, stands next to a stack of gold ingots. (Nathan Solis, Courthouse News Service)

Evans, a geologist, said the shipwreck is a geological deposit, where rust and calcium has gathered on the gold in the ocean water.

“It’s dark, it’s cold, but it’s a wonderful place,” Evans said of the shipwreck.

The original treasure hunter who found the shipwreck in 1988, Tommy Thompson, fought several legal battles over the treasure, including those who sought insurance payouts delivered more than 100 years earlier when the ship sank and a band of Capuchin monks who said they were granted the right to the sunken treasure, according to court filings.

His attorneys battled through two admiralty trials and in 1993, he was awarded the majority of the treasure. But in 2006, a group of maritime contractors sued for several million because they claimed Thompson did not grant them a share of the treasure for their help in his search.

Thompson sold a number of coins, according to another lawsuit filed by investors of his expedition who said they received nothing. In August 2012, Thompson refused an Ohio court order to divulge the whereabouts of 500 gold coins. He then claimed to be on a voyage and was found in criminal contempt for his lack of appearance before the court.

Eventually, Thompson was tracked and arrested in a Florida hotel room in 2015. A U.S. district judge ordered Thompson to give the government power of attorney, through receiver Ira Kane, to search trust documents for evidence of the coins, which have a value between $2.5 million and $4 million.

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