THE BEST S.S. CENTRAL AMERICA DOUBLE EAGLE
By SCOTT A. TRAVERS
COPYRIGHT © 2003 BY SCOTT A. TRAVERS
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
A precious piece of history changed hands recently when Scott Travers Rare Coin Galleries brokered the sale of a superb 1857-S double eagle plucked from the wreckage of the storied SS Central America. The glittering $20 gold piece, graded Mint State-67 by the Professional Coin Grading Service, may well be the finest specimen retrieved from the doomed steamer’s watery grave – and the finest Type I Coronet double eagle in existence.
The coin, an example of the scarce “bold-S” variety, is one of just three such pieces in the Central America cache, and 11 of any kind from the ship’s spectacular cargo, to receive the lofty grade of MS-67 from PCGS. It remains in the original gold-foil-insert holder used by the company to showcase coins from the ship and signify they were subject to no additional restoration after their recovery from the wreck and initial curation – a crucial consideration in assuring their high quality is pristine. The specimen was hand-picked by Scott Travers and John Albanese, a longtime professional numismatist who played a key role in the founding of both PCGS and the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation of America (NGC) and who now serves as an independent consultant. According to Albanese, it is possibly the finest-known Type I double eagle – the kind produced from 1849 to 1866 without the motto IN GOD WE TRUST on the reverse. In all, only 12 have been graded MS-67 by PCGS, and none higher. The value is in excess of $100,000 – and the Certified Coin Dealer Newsletter has a sight-unseen listing of $90,000 for a coin of this date, type and grade.
The cargo of the SS Central America included thousands of gold coins and hundreds of gold bars and ingots when the 280-foot sidewheel steamer left Panama on Sept. 3, 1857, bound for New York. The coins had been struck at the three-year-old San Francisco Mint with ore from the California Gold Rush. The bulk of the 477 passengers and 101 crew members also had come from San Francisco. In that era before the Transcontinental Railroad and the Panama Canal, it was common practice to transport passengers and cargo from the U.S. West Coast by ship to Panama’s Pacific coast, then across the isthmus by train to the Atlantic side, where a new ship picked them up for the trip to New York and other Eastern ports. On Sept. 9, the ship encountered an unexpected storm; three days later, it sank off the Carolina coast, carrying 425 souls and its rich cargo to a tomb at the bottom of the sea.
In 1981, Tommy Thompson and other adventurers formed the Columbus-America Discovery Group to seek the ship’s grave and recover its treasure. They located it on Sept. 11, 1987 – almost exactly 130 years after the Central America was swallowed by the sea. After more than a decade of painstaking salvage operations and complicated legal maneuvers, the treasure finally reached the marketplace several years ago. And now, with the recent sale by Scott Travers Rare Coin Galleries, one of the ship’s most breathtaking coins has found a new home where its history, beauty and rarity will be appreciated and preserved by the legacy’s latest custodian.