Auctions

Jewelry Recovered from Sunken ‘Ship of Gold’ Heads to Auction

AuctionsNov 22, 2022

Jewelry Recovered from Sunken ‘Ship of Gold’ Heads to Auction

The S.S. Central America sank in 1857 off the coast of South Carolina, carrying tons of gold from the California Gold Rush.

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A size 8.5 signet ring engraved with initials “SS” may have been owned by San Francisco jeweler Samuel Shreve, who was a passenger on the S.S. Central America when the ship sank in 1857 on a voyage to New York. (Photo credit: Holabird Western Americana Collections)
Reno, Nevada—Jewelry on board a ship that sank off the U.S. coast in the mid-1800s will be available to the public for the first time when it goes up for auction next month. 

The S.S. Central America, or the “Ship of Gold,” sank off the coast of South Carolina in 1857 during a hurricane while traveling from Panama to New York City.

In addition to costing the lives of more than 400 of its passengers, tons of gold bars and coins from the California Gold Rush valued in the millions also went down with the ship. The gold onboard was meant to help banks manage the financial panic that had just started, but its sinking instead exacerbated the crisis.

Insurance claims for the loss were paid in 1850s.

Recovery from the shipwreck occurred in stages: between 1988-1991 and then again in 2014.

The company that discovered and retrieved the sunken treasures settled with insurers and their successors in 1992. With court approval, California Gold Marketing Group acquired clear title to all the artifacts that had been recovered from the ship.

Now, gold jewelry, vintage clothing, and other historic items recovered from the site will be offered at auction on Dec. 3, years after many of them were retrieved from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

“Much of the gold jewelry was part of a commercial shipment, either carried by one of the jewelers on board or by a separate shipment transported on the voyage going to New York. Gold nugget stickpins were found still attached to their original thick paper boards, ready for resale on the New York or eastern seaboard jewelry market,” said Fred Holabird, president of Holabird Western Americana Collections, which will conduct the auction.

Lots include dozens of 1850s gold rings, stickpins, cufflinks, a gold belt buckle, and several pocket watch cases and covers.

Notable highlights include a rare medal/badge presented by the Order of Saint Maurice and Saint Lazarus, the world’s second oldest order of knighthood. Bestowed by the House of Savoy in Italy, the medal features a white enamel cross representing the Order of Saint Maurice and a green enamel Maltese cross of the Order of Saint Lazarus.

It was retrieved from the bottom of the ocean in 1991 and kept in secure storage for decades.

See: More Pieces in the Upcoming Auction 

There is also a ring engraved with initials “SS” that may have belonged to San Francisco jeweler Samuel Shreve, a passenger on the ship when it sank, rings with heart shapes that would’ve eventually been engraved with lovers’ initials, and California gold-in-quartz items like cufflinks and brooches.

Meanwhile, other interesting items include the oldest known Gold Rush-era heavy duty work pant jeans with a button fly, which may have been made by or for Levi Strauss in his early years of business.

There are also S.S. Central America bottles, tableware, dining utensils, the purser’s keys to the gold treasure room, passenger luggage tags and ticket receipts, hardware from the ship, a navigational octant, and daguerreotype photographs.

“Many collectors have been waiting for these extraordinary items to come on the market since the legendary S.S. Central America was located in 1988 and Life magazine proclaimed it America’s greatest treasure ever found,” said Holabird.

The auction will be held at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center in Nevada and online on the Holabird Western Americana Collections website on Saturday, Dec. 3.

A second auction featuring hundreds of additional artifacts from the shipwreck will be held in February.

In anticipation of the auction, Holabird has created a limited edition 280-page catalog with numerous previously unpublished illustrations of the recovery of the S.S. Central America, some of which are reproduced in 3-D as shot during the discovery missions with a remote-controlled submersible nicknamed “Nemo.”

Copies of the catalog are available for $100 while supplies last.

Auction lots can also be viewed online.

For more information about the auctions or to buy a printed catalog, visit the Holabird website or contact the company at 775-851-1859 or info@holabirdamericana.com

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