20,000 COINS UNDER THE SEA; Treasure Hunters' Effort to Launch near Jacksonville

Article excerpt

Byline: Binyamin Appelbaum, Times-Union staff writer

The unsuspecting ship and the indifferent storm began their voyages on the same day, Oct. 18, 1865.

The ship was carrying carpetbaggers and gold from New York to New Orleans. Like the nation, she had just returned to civilian life after a half-decade at war.

The hurricane was the last of the season. Born over the south Caribbean, it gathered speed and power from the warm water, spending its fury on the Florida peninsula before moving into the Atlantic to die.

For three days ship and storm collided on the open seas off Georgia.

On the second day, the northbound wind overwhelmed the southbound paddlewheels mounted on both sides off the ship, shutting down her steam engines.

On the third day, the auxiliary boiler powering the bilge pumps also failed, and water filled the hold.

By afternoon on Oct. 25, even as the storm moved along and faded away, the ship was sunk.

Five lifeboats bobbed on the calming sea, carrying all but one of the 81 passengers and crew.

The steamship Republic, the final passenger and the cargo, including about 20,000 gold coins, sank to the sandy bottom a quarter-mile below.

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They lay undisturbed for almost 138 years, until August, when a Tampa company announced it had located the ship's remains about 100 miles northeast of Jacksonville.

This month, the company, Odyssey Marine Exploration, will launch an attempt to recover the largest treasure ever pulled back from the ocean: The coins alone could bring an estimated $150 million from collectors, investors and historical enthusiasts.

The recovery effort is on the cutting edge of a new industry, deep sea salvage, made possible by recent advances in the sonar technology used to locate shipwrecks and in the remote robotics used to recover materials from depths to which divers cannot descend safely.

The sudden accessibility of the ocean deep has triggered concerns among some archaeologists, who worry the salvage of saleable artifacts will come at the expense of artifacts with purely historic value.

The principals of Odyssey Marine, however, say their work will meet the highest archaeological standards and that the sale of thousands of identical coins without independent archaeological value is a reasonable and effective way to fund that work.

"Watch and see," director of operations Greg Stemm has told those who ask whether the company is capable of reaping both profit and knowledge from the site. "We are building a new industry, and we believe our process of deep ocean archaeology will be of interest to many in the academic and private sector."

The company has good reason to spend time and money on quality archaeology: Coins with an interesting history sell for more money than similar coins found in less exciting places.

The $20 gold coins thought to comprise the bulk of the cargo have a total face value of about $400,000, according to contemporary sources. To realize $150 million from their sale, each would have to sell for about $7,500.

Jim Morrison, a consignor for Louisiana coin auctioneer Bowers and Merena Galleries, said that price is higher than the general market for period shipwreck coins. Although prices vary greatly depending on condition, the gallery currently is selling a $20 gold coin recovered from the Brother Jonathan, a sidewheel steamship wrecked off San Francisco in 1865, for $4,150.

Morrison also noted that the infusion of 20,000 coins into the rare coin marketplace could depress prices. "At a certain point it reaches the point where a market has been flooded by a particular horde," he said.

CAMERAS FIND SHIP

The Republic horde, all but forgotten across 130 years, resisted discovery for almost another decade after Odyssey Marine began its search across 1,500 square miles of the ocean floor -- an area about the size of Rhode Island. …