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Treasures from a Gold Rush-era sunken ship are set to go up at a Reno auction house on Saturday.
When the S.S. Central America, rightly nicknamed the “Ship of Gold,” sunk off the coast of South Carolina 165 years ago, it brought real treasure down with it. Some of it is being auctioned off this weekend, including an 1849 Colt pistol, full beer bottles, and numerous gold nuggets.
“Some collectors have been waiting for these extraordinary items to come on the market since the legendary, submerged ship was located in 1988 and Life magazine proclaimed it America’s greatest treasure ever found,” president Holabird Western Americana Collections Fred Holabird said.
Some of the artifacts being sold are reportedly worth up to $1 million, including a lid to the oldest known Wells Fargo treasure box. Additional items being auctioned include 1850s currency, a gold pocket watch, a boiler steam gauge, a perfume bottle, and articles of clothing.
The Ship of Gold, originally named S.S. George Law and then changed to the S.S. Central America, was a steamship built in 1852 for the United States Mail Steamship Company. It sunk 200 miles off the coast of South Carolina on September 12, 1857, killing 425 people while 125 were rescued. It was on its way to New York from Panama.
The artifacts and gold were effectively preserved because the wreckage of the ship lies 7,000 feet beneath the surface of the Atlantic, allowing cold temperatures and a lack of oxygen to aid in their preservation. Other items were in trunks and safes that were still sealed.
The sinking of the S.S. Central America helped lead to economic panic and recession, known as the Panic of 1857, partly because there were thousands of coins from the San Francisco mint headed to New York.
Not all that glitters is gold in the story of the ship of gold. The man who found the wreckage in 1988, deep-sea explorer Tommy Thompson, is in jail for refusing to disclose the location of 500 gold coins. Thompson was reportedly being held in contempt of court and being fined $1,000 a day for failing to answer the government’s questions about the booty, violating his plea deal after reportedly withholding money from investors.
Some of what was found has already been sold in 2000 and 2017 for tens of millions of dollars, and the bell of the ship was donated to the U.S. Naval Academy in early 2022.
There have been multiple recovery trips to gather additional items. In 1990 and 1991, a robot submarine recovered two trunks that belonged to first-class passengers, which are in excellent condition. One of those trunks belonged to a man who served in the Mexican-American War.