Treasures From Major Spanish Shipwrecks To Go On The Block

Posted: June 12, 1988

Some idea of the wealth that Spain extracted from the New World can be gained this week from an auction of gold and silver coins and bullion, domestic table silver, gold chains and emeralds recovered from the wreck of Spanish treasure ships.

The collection will be sold at Christie's in New York on behalf of treasure hunter Mel Fisher, his crew and the investors who financed them. Fisher spent years recovering objects from two Spanish galleons that sank off the coast of Florida during a hurricane in 1622.

The treasure is expected to bring $4 million to $5 million at auctions Tuesday and Wednesday. Christie's also will offer by private sale a ''concreted" chest of silver coins from the primary treasure ship, Nuestra Senora de Atocha. The wooden chest that contained the coins disintegrated, leaving a mass of coins in the shape of the chest. The auction house expects to get $200,000 to $300,000 for it. Also to be offered, and expected to sell for $600,000 to $800,000, is a representative collection of 237 New World Spanish coins from among the 180,000 coins recovered from Nuestra Senora de Atocha.

Of interest to collectors and scholars is the 17th-century household silverware. "It is the most exciting thing, to see this sophisticated silver produced in the New World," said Christopher Hartop, chief cataloguer in Christie's silver department. Hartop discovered five previously unknown hallmarks used by craftsmen in lands that are now Colombia, Peru and Panama.

The silver is in a mixture of Spanish and New World styles. A ewer, in a typical Spanish helmet shape, has a stylized monkey mask below its spout that looks Aztec. A two-handled bowl with question-mark-shape handles is similar to one painted in a still life attributed to the Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbaran.

A 15-inch-high silver rose-water sprinkler, with an ovoid body and a long neck, shows Moorish influence. Hartop says he has found no precedent for this form in Spanish silver. The object is expected to bring $30,000 to $50,000.

Perhaps the most beautiful object is a silver gilt two-handled lobed cup of extremely heavy-gauge silver. It is expected to bring $120,000 to $180,000.

Because so little Spanish domestic silver from the Colonial period has survived, we have only a vague idea of what was in daily use by the Spanish upper classes. Large, decorated dishes and chargers like those found among the personal baggage of the wealthy passengers on Nuestra Senora de Atocha have in the past been called patens, or church plates, because those that survive are in churches. Cruet pots for oil and vinegar have been assumed to be for wine and water and intended for Communion. However, two found on the Atocha are marked "A" and "V" for aceite (oil) and vinagre (vinegar) and fit into a domestic cruet stand.

The main cargo of the galleons, of course, was bullion. The Spanish crown allowed free enterprise to exploit the gold and silver in the New World in return for a 20 percent tax. The gold bars - which are expected to bring $600 to $800 for a fragment and $40,000 to $60,000 for a bar weighing 38 ounces - are stamped with a complex system of marks to show that tax had been paid and to indicate the fineness of the bar and the foundry.

One massive gold chain recovered from the wreck of the Santa Margarita, the Nuestra Senora de Atocha's sister ship, measures more than 61 inches and is expected to bring $150,000 to $250,000.

In recent weeks, Christie's has exhibited the treasure in Geneva, London, Amsterdam and Tokyo. European museums have expressed interest in purchasing some of the objects. But since the Council of American Maritime Museums passed a resolution forbidding the display of treasure recovered for profit, American maritime musuems are not expected to bid.

The story of Fisher's long and ultimately rewarding search for the shipwrecks has been the subject of a National Geographic television special, four books and many newspaper stories. Fisher began his quest in 1963. He and his associate, Kip Wagner, first found treasure from a Spanish fleet destroyed in a hurricane in 1715 near Fort Lauderdale. In 1968, Fisher began searching specifically for the Nuestra Senora de Atocha.

In 1971, Fisher found an anchor and a musket ball and was convinced he had found it. For the next two years, he made only scattered finds of gold and silver, but in 1973 the crew discovered 1,500 gold coins. That June, Fisher's son Dirk found the first mariner's astrolabe, and his son Kim recovered the first of many gold bars.

The search continued, even though the state of Florida claimed ownership of the treasure, leading to more than eight years of litigation. By 1981, Fisher had located the wreck of the Margarita and had recovered an estimated several million dollars' worth of gold and silver bars, coins and jewelry.

In 1983, a federal judge allowed Fisher and his investors to keep the treasure.

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