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Some of the rarest US coins ever found are hitting the market, thanks to NC shipwreck

The first 502 gold and silver coins plucked from a shipwreck off North Carolina have been sold to a global coin dealer at a price that “wildly exceeded” the recovery project’s expectations.

No one involved in the deal is saying what the coins fetched, but market values suggest it was easily in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

U.S. coins from the first decade of the 1800s sell for between $40,000 and $150,000 each, in part because it’s a time when the nation was just starting to produce coinage, experts say.

The 502 coins included some of the oldest U.S. gold coins ever recovered off a shipwreck, dating to around 1800, said Keith Webb of Blue Water Ventures International. Blue Water Ventures is working with Endurance Exploration Group to recover treasure off the Steamship Pulaski.

“What I can say is that we are totally surprised at the amount of money the first part of the collection brought,” Webb told the Charlotte Observer. “What they sold for far exceeded our expectations.”

All 502 coins predated the sinking of the Pulaski in 1838, with the oldest being a 1750s British Gold Guinea, said Micah Eldred of Endurance Exploration Group.

Webb believes more than 100,000 gold and silver coins wait to be found, along with jewelry.

The Steamship Pulaski had a passenger list made up of some of the wealthiest and most politically powerful people in the eastern United States, reports the North Carolina Shipwrecks Blogspot. The ship’s boilers exploded late at night, killing nearly half the 185-plus people on board, according to the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources.

What makes the wreck site so valuable, Webb said, is that wealthy travelers were then known to cart their fortunes with them. The ship went down so quickly that few had time to gather any belongings, he said.

Divers are finding the coins in areas where the passengers’ steamer trunks tumbled as part of a “wreck trail.” The trunks themselves have wasted away, Webb says, but the metal bands, keys and locks that held them together now sit in the sand.

“The coins we are finding are still standing up as if they were stacked in a box. They are in the position they might have been in when they were in the trunk,” Webb said.

“We found 247 in one box and 100 in another. There may have been 100 steamer trunks on board, so we have just scratched the surface.”

Eldred told the Charlotte Observer the sale was done to fund more time on the project.

“Our strategy was to sell sufficient coins to recoup our 2018 salvage cost and provide working capital to continue operations through 2019,” Eldred said.

“We intend to keep a representation of the type of coins we have found, along with unique period artifacts...for public viewing in a museum or use in academic study.”

Among the bits of jewelry found on the Pulaski is a gold watch that has its hands frozen at 11:05 p.m.

That’s five minutes after the ship’s boilers were reported to have exploded on June 14, 1838, according to TheHistoryBlog.com.

Mark Price has been a reporter for The Charlotte Observer since 1991, covering beats including schools, crime, immigration, the LGBTQ issues, homelessness and nonprofits. He graduated from the University of Memphis with majors in journalism and art history, and a minor in geology.
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