Shipwreck coins represent a fascinating category of American numismatics. Specifically, these are vintage United States coins that were recovered from documented vessels that sank. Famous examples include the SS Central America, the SS Republic, the SS New York, the SS Brother Jonathan and the SS Yankee Blade. All of these tragically doomed boats carried significant amounts of coinage—which would be discovered and brought to market many decades later.
The SS Central America is perhaps the most famous numismatic shipwreck due to the immense amount of treasure and its connection to the California Gold Rush. The boat sank in a hurricane in 1857 off the coast of the Carolinas, bringing down 420 passengers and over 30,000 pounds of gold. The wreckage and treasure were found in 1988 but the coins would not appear on the market for many years. After a tremendous amount of controversy and litigation, coins and ingots from the SS Central America were offered for sale to collectors in the late 1990s.
By far, the most commonly encountered item from the SS Central America shipwreck is the 1857-S $20 Double Eagle. Most of the 1857-S $20s recovered from the ship remained in beautiful Uncirculated condition, despite having been submerged underwater for over a century. Thanks to a careful and well-executed restoration method, the coins are typically seen with bright color and booming luster. Whereas saltwater can dull a coin’s flash and luster, the SS Central America $20s managed to survive with their surfaces largely unaffected.
While gold is generally unreactive to saltwater and able to survive in decent condition, silver coins almost always corrode and sustain damage. Pieces recovered from the SS Republic are a perfect example of this phenomenon. Most of the gold coins from this wreck showed just minor signs of deterioration, but virtually all of the silver coins exhibited significant surface damage. Some displayed extreme disturbance from the saltwater, with major porosity and an extremely rough texture.
One of the lesser-known numismatic shipwrecks is the SS Yankee Blade, which was found in 1977. This wreck contained 200-300 1854-S $20 Double Eagles, which must have been absolutely spectacular before the boat sank. When the coins were recovered, they displayed virtually immaculate surfaces but with slightly subdued luster. The saltwater imparted a granular effect to the surfaces. If not for the muted luster and slightly unnatural surfaces, these coins would grade MS 65 to MS 67!