In 1989, the discovery of $1.22 billion in sunken gold treasure off the Carolina coast put an 1857 maritime disaster in the pages of history and its booty into numerous private collections. Carrying a 3-ton shipment of gold and nearly 600 passengers from Panama to New York, the 278-foot steamship SS Central America encountered a hurricane and sank in 8,000 feet of water.
In all, 425 passengers and crew perished that day, and the toll would have been even greater if not for the good fortune that two other ships were passing in the area. The crew of the English brig Marine pulled about 100 women and children to safety. Five hours later, according to Gary Kinder’s book Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea (Atlantic Monthly Press), Capt. Anders Johnsen of the Norwegian vessel Ellen, who had changed his course, noticed a bird flying in a strange flight pattern and took it as a bad omen. He decided to steer his ship back on its original route, and in a short time, he “heard voices and discovered he was in the midst of people who had been on a shipwreck.” Thanks to the captain’s superstition, an additional 50 people were plucked from the Atlantic.
The loss in human life was certainly considerable, but the loss of this much-anticipated California gold sparked a nationwide recession that many historians cite as a factor in the outbreak of the Civil War.
Since its discovery, all but 5 percent of the Central America’s cargo of gold dust, nuggets, coins, and ingots has been acquired by private collectors. Now, four gold ingot bars that were cast in San Francisco during the California gold rush and weigh a total of more than 152 pounds are available for purchase for $4.5 million from Monaco Financial (888.751.1933 ext. 4538, www.zoomcoin.com), a rare coin dealer based in Newport Beach, Calif. The gold bars, whose authenticity has been certified by the Professional Coin Grading Service of Newport Beach, have been infrared tagged and will be touring the United States throughout the next year.