The Stamp and Coin Place Blog: connecting the past and present of stamp and coin collecting, and looking to the future.

Shipwrecks and Sunken Treasure

The treasure of sunken ships seems the stuff of glory gone by, told in swashbuckling stories around the world to a captivated audience. These tales talk of gold and silver beyond your wildest imagination.

For a few lucky people, these sunken treasures came within their grasp.

When one talks of lost treasure, one thinks especially of Spanish galleons, where much of sunken treasure comes from. Some estimate that a third of Spain’s ships full of treasure never made it all the way across the sea.

Spanish colony mints produced gold and silver coins called “cobs”, believed to be a simplification of the name “cabo de barra” (“end of the bar”). Each of these coins had their own unique features as each was created individually; each coin is its own treasure. Unfortunately, the coins struck in the colonies were often shipped back to Spain then melted and re-struck as Spanish coins.

The mid-18th century brought milled coinage, including pillar dollars, which showed two pillars and two globes, and bust dollars showing the portrait of the Spanish king. Coins were minted in 8, 4, 2, 1, ½, and ¼ silver “reales” based on weight (though they often ended up underweight). These were commonly called “doubloons”; the dollar silver coins were “pieces of eight”. These words weren’t just for pirates!

A Spanish Galleon ship.

A Spanish Galleon.

From the 15th century to the 19th, Spain shipped treasure from the Caribbean, Mexican and South American colonies, as well as from South and Central America, back to Spain.

Coins shipped between other countries lie in the ocean too, including coins from Dutch, English, French and Portuguese ships that sunk in the process of journeying from Europe to the Orient.

Silver coins lying underwater will have corroded from salt water and erosion after being stuck in the ocean for 300-400 years. But gold coins usually remain unaffected by the saltwater and are found in great condition.

A lucky few have found treasure at the bottom of the ocean. In 2013, one family of treasure hunters found $300,000 worth of treasure from a 1715 wreck of a ship sailing from Havana to Spain. Plenty of treasure from famous wrecks now lies at the bottom of the ocean for people to discover — if they’re lucky! (We wrote about one such discovery from the wreck of the El Cazador.)

What would you do if you found treasure at the bottom of the ocean?

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