CINCINNATI — Deep-sea explorers recovered millions of dollars in gold and silver and a slew of personal items that are a virtual time capsule of the California Gold Rush, according to newly unsealed court documents obtained by The Associated Press that provide the first detailed inventory of a treasure trove being resurrected from an 1857 shipwreck at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
The recovery effort at the S.S. Central America shipwreck, about 200 miles off the South Carolina coast, began in April and is expected to continue throughout the summer.
The operation is being directed by a court-appointed receiver of an Ohio company that had been led by a treasure hunter-turned-fugitive named Tommy Thompson, who first found the Central America in 1988 — a monumental achievement funded by a group of central Ohio investors who never saw a penny.
Immediately after finding the ship and recovering a fraction of its garden of gold, Thompson became embroiled in a decades-long legal battle over who had rights to the treasure and how it was being dispersed. None of the investors ever saw a return, despite the gold selling for about $50 million, though Thompson's supporters say the vast majority went toward legal fees and loans.
In August 2012, after he failed to show up for several court hearings, a warrant was issued for Thompson's arrest. He has been a federal fugitive ever since.
Meanwhile, the Central America and its gold sat untouched since 1991, the last time Thompson and his team were at the site.
The new recovery operation was made possible after the court-appointed receiver awarded a contract to Tampa, Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration to conduct the recovery in hopes of bringing up more treasure and paying back investors.
The inventories, unsealed by a federal judge in Virginia late Wednesday, show that Odyssey Marine has brought up 43 solid gold bars, 1,300 $20 double eagle gold coins, and thousands more gold and silver coins.
Bob Evans, an Ohio scientist who was on both the original and current expeditions, said in a statement "the variety and quality of the coins being recovered is just astonishing."
He said the double eagles are just as "spectacular" as the ones recovered more than 25 years ago, but that the most recent recovery has resulted in a wider variety of coins.
"I have seen what I believe are several of the finest known examples," Evans said. "The coins date from 1823 to 1857 and represent a wonderful diversity of denominations and mints, a time capsule of virtually all the coins that were used in 1857."
It's unclear how much more gold is left in the Central America and estimates have varied wildly, with some saying there could have been up to 21 tons on the ship when it sank.
Odyssey Marine could not immediately provide an estimate of what the gold that has been recovered so far is worth, but it's easily in the millions, based on past sales of such items.
For instance, thousands of $10 and $20 gold coins sold by Odyssey Marine from the SS Republic, which sank off the southeastern U.S. in 1865, sold for an average of about $6,700 a coin.
That would mean the $10 and $20 gold coins recovered from the Central America so far could sell for up to $9 million, potentially more.
Gold bars vary in value depending on myriad factors. In 2000, Sotheby's estimated that gold bars recovered from the Central America between 1988 and 1991, which weighed up to 54 pounds, were worth between $8,000 and $250,000 each.
The passenger items recovered from the Central America so far provide a window into the world of a California Gold Rush miner and other Americans who were on their way from The Golden State to New York when their ship sunk. Among them was a safe that contained two cotton pieces of clothing wrapped tightly around gold coins, nuggets, and dust, a pouch with 134 gold double eagles, a leather saddlebag with more nuggets, and a small packet filled with paper and sealed with twine.
Other items include wire-rimmed glasses, a gold puzzle ring, and the photographs of at least 60 passengers. The photos are called ambrotypes, a short-lived type of photography that used glass plates, and were left at the bottom of the ocean until Odyssey Marine can figure out how to safely recover them.
"Photographs of any mid-19th century Gold Rush miners are rare, and these ambrotypes are the only examples found on any 19th-century shipwreck worldwide," according to a court report by Odyssey Marine.
The inventories document what Odyssey Marine recovered at the shipwreck from the beginning of the operation on April 15 through June 15. An inventory of operations from the past month should be filed soon.
The SS Central America was in operation for four years during the California Gold Rush. It sailed into a hurricane in 1857 and sank in one of the worst maritime disasters in American history; 425 people were killed and thousands of pounds of gold sank with it, contributing to an economic panic.