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Treasures from legendary 1857 "Ship of Gold" shipwreck unveiled in Nevada

Sunken treasure from "Ship of Gold"
Sunken treasure from "Ship of Gold" to be on display 05:14

A mysterious daguerreotype of a woman and a pair of jeans possibly made by Levi Strauss himself are among nearly 1,000 Gold Rush-era treasures recovered from the fabled "Ship of Gold" now on display in Reno, Nevada.

Since their recovery between the late 1980s and 2014, the remarkable findings extracted from the sunken S.S. Central America have been in secret storage. This week, they began a national tour at the National Antique Bottle Convention from Thursday through Sunday at the Grand Sierra Resort.

This is the first public exhibition of the artifacts, which will be auctioned off later this year, the Reno Gazette Journal reported.

Among the notable recovered items are the lid to the oldest known Wells Fargo treasure shipment box; 1857 clothing, including a pair of the earliest known Gold Rush-era canvas work pants jeans with a button fly that may have been made by Strauss in his early years in business; and jewelry made from California Gold Rush "mother lode" native gold in quartz as gemstones, according to Fred Holabird, president of Holabird Western Americana Collections in Reno.

One daguerreotype metal plate photograph of an unidentified young woman was nicknamed, "Mona Lisa of the Deep," by the recovery team that retrieved the mysterious photo from the seabed where it was discovered in a pile of the ship's coal.

"There is even a key to the ship's wine storage room and an S.S. Central America brass name tag attached to a set of keys that belonged to the ship's purser. We believe these were for the locked room where the gold treasure cargo was kept," Holabird said in a press release.

Other items recovered include pistols; brass luggage tags; passengers' ticket receipts; galley utensils and dishes; ornate, flint glass wine and spirits decanters that appear to have been a standard amenity in the first-class staterooms; eyeglasses in solid gold frames; and chewing tobacco in a pouch apparently from the 1851 London World's Fair, Holabird said.

While laden with booty, the S.S. Central America shipwreck was also a deep sea gravesite.

The ship sank 7,200 feet deep in the Atlantic Ocean during a hurricane on September 12, 1857. The ship was on a voyage from Panama to New York carrying tons of California Gold Rush coins, ingots, and gold dust from the San Francisco and Northern California area.

Of the 578 passengers and crewmembers, 425 died and the loss of the gold cargo was a major factor in the economically devastating financial Panic of 1857 in the United States, according to a recent press release.

Recovery from the shipwreck site of what has been described as "America's greatest treasure" occurred in several stages between 1988 through 1991 and again in 2014, but it was sullied by scandal in recent years.

Tommy Thompson, a deep-sea explorer who found the shipwreck in 1988, has been in federal prison for six years because he refuses to answer questions about the whereabouts of 500 gold coins. He also evaded investors who funded his venture and was a fugitive for two years.

In this November 1989 file photo, Tommy Thompson holds a $50 pioneer gold piece retrieved earlier in 1989 from the wreck of the gold ship SS Central America. (Source: The Columbus Dispatch, Lon Horwedel/AP Photo)

Thompson has said, without providing details, that the coins - valued at about $2.5 million - were turned over to a trust in Belize. After a federal judge ordered Thompson in 2012 to appear in court to disclose the coins' whereabouts, Thompson fled to Florida where he lived with his longtime female companion at a hotel where he was living near Boca Raton. U.S. marshals tracked him down and arrested him in early 2015.

The items on display during the upcoming convention were kept in storage in three different states: Maryland, Massachusetts, and Ohio, until a court-approved settlement was reached ending a decades-long ownership dispute.

Scientist Bob Evans, who was on each of the recovery missions, will be at the exhibit in Reno to talk to visitors about the "Ship of Gold" and the recovered Gold Rush artifacts.

"This was a largely forgotten moment in American history because a few short years after that, the Civil War broke out," Evans told CBS News in 2018. 

The items will be offered in public auctions in October and November by Holabird Western Americana Collections. Currently, California Gold Marketing Group of Brea, Calif. owns the antiques.

In January, one of the largest S.S. Central America ingots ever offered at auction, an 866.19-ounce find known as a Justh & Hunter ingot, sold for $2.16 million through Dallas-based Heritage Auctions.

A few of the 45 historic Gold Rush-era ingots recovered from the SS Central America in 2014.  Phil Arnold/Professional Coin Grading Service

"Given that Justh & Hunter bars recovered from the S.S. Central America numbered 86 ingots of varying sizes, their experience and integrity ranked them among the most trusted and well-run assay establishments of the momentous Gold Rush era," Heritage Auctions said

Treasure from the  S.S. Central America has fetched millions of dollars over the years. In 2019, multiple relics from the shipwreck hauled in more than $11 at auction. In 2001, an 80-pound ingot was bought by a private collector for a record $8 million.

Depiction of the sinking ship, SS Central America, the steamer that sank in 1857 off the coast of South Carolina with several tons of gold aboard. The Columbus Exploration group found the shipwreck in 1988 and brought up some of the gold from 1988 to 1991. Now a second company, Odyssey Marine Exploration, is headed out to the shipwreck to recovery the rest during the summer of 2014. Odyssey Marine Exploration
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