Originally named the SS George Law until shortly before it sank in a hurricane, the SS Central America was a sidewheel steamship that by September 1857 was regularly shuttling passengers and cargo between Panama and New York City. The California Gold Rush had been going on for almost a decade. Both passengers and gold, in the form of coins, ingots, and nuggets, regularly traveled from California to New York. Typically the route consisted of a sidewheel steamer from San Francisco to Panama, across the isthmus via railroad, and then sidewheel steamer from Panama to New York.
On September 3, 1857, the SS Central America set out from Aspinwall, Panama to New York City with a one night stopover in Havana, Cuba. The ship was carrying over 400 passengers and crew, and about $2.6 million dollars worth of gold onboard. Later, that treasure would prove to have a numismatic value estimated at over $100 million.
On September 12, 1857, the ship sank about 200 miles off the coast of North Carolina during a hurricane. Of the over 400 passengers and crew, it is believed that only 153 survived which included all of the women and all but one of the children. The only child to die was a boy who refused to get into a lifeboat without his older brother being allowed to join him.
Among the survivors were Ansel and Addie Easton. They were newlyweds having recently been married in California on August 20 and headed to New York on their honeymoon. A hundred and forty years later, the Easton’s leather-bound trunk would be recovered intact. In it were clothing, pistols, jewelry, and other items. Some of Mr. Easton’s shirts were custom-made with his name marked on them which identified Mr. Easton as the owner of the trunk.
During the 1980s, Tommy Thompson, Bob Evans, and others from the Columbia-America Discovery Group located the wreck of the SS Central America. It was located in eight thousand feet of water off the coast of North Carolina. The ship’s bell forged by the Morgan Iron Works would provide positive identification that the SS Central America had indeed been found.
Using a robotic submersible named Nemo, the Columbia-America Discovery Group eventually hauled over 7,000 coins and several hundred gold ingots to the surface. Many of the coins and ingots were in such a well preserved state that they looked as though they had just been struck at the mint. Over 5,000 $20 gold double eagles dated 1857 from the San Francisco Mint were recovered. The large number of gem 1857-S $20 double eagles made a gem Type 1 (1850-1866 with no motto) double eagle a possibility for many collectors that previously could not have afforded one. The numismatic value of the treasure was estimated to exceed $100 million.
The first public offering of SS Central America treasure occurred on June 20-21, 2000 by Sotheby’s in New York having been rescheduled from December 1999 due to legal issues. The gold offered in that first sale represented the portion of the treasure that was awarded to a consortium of underwriters of the SS Central America or their successors. It consisted of a combination of gold coins, ingots, and placer gold nuggets.
A second public auction of SS Central America treasure occurred on December 14, 2000 by Christie’s in New York. The gold offered in this auction was from among the gold awarded to the Columbus-America Discovery Group and later sold to The California Gold Marketing Group led by Dwight Manley. The sale included coins, ingots, and many curious and interesting pieces that were either fused together, or still encrusted as they were found in the shipwreck.
Bowers, Q. David. A California Gold Rush History featuring the treasure from the S.S. Central America. Newport Beach: The California Gold Marketing Group, 2002.
Christie's (Firm). Gold Rush Treasures from the SS Central America in Association with Spink: auction sale December 14, 2000 at New York, New York. New York: Christie’s, 2000.
Kinder, Gary. Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998.
Song, Paul and Dan Trout. Sotheby’s letter to clients, 20 May 2000.
Sotheby's (Firm). Treasures from the SS Central America, Glories of the California Gold Rush: auction sale,June 20 & 21, 2000, at New York, New York. New York: Sotheby's, 2000.