- Historic Sites
The saga of Kip Wagner, the first modern American to grow rich from ancient Spanish treasure
October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
Mel Fisher’s team found only just enough to keep them hanging on in 1963, but 1964 brought its reward. One of Fisher’s team had a gadget that had taken him two years to invent and perfect; it was called a “magnetometer” and was more than useful for finding metal in water. Another tool, designed by Fisher himself, was called a “blaster,” for the reason that when turned onto a piece of ground it sent everything flying in a cloud of sand, creating a kind of waterfall down which the detritus slipped. In April, with the blaster as well as the magnetometer, Real Eight’s divers along with Fisher’s team worked a new site and turned up about a hundred pieces of eight. Then on May 8 one of Fisher’s men, working alone, found two golden disks weighing seven pounds apiece. On May 21 they got more than two hundred gold coins, mostly four- and eight-escudo pieces.
On May 24 what Kip Wagner called the big haul was made. Mel’s blaster had cut a hole about fifteen feet by five or six feet. Moe, one of the team, with two other divers went down to see it and were blinded—really blinded—by a bright yellow glow. There, said Wagner, “was a veritable carpet of gold.” Moe grabbed two fistfuls and surfaced.
It was easier said than done. Even under water gold is very heavy, and the golden coins were slippery: they were apt to fall out of a diver’s grip. When this happened it was not easy to find them again, because they were immediatelycovered with a thin layer of sand. The blaster was left going to keep the treasure exposed, but it also fought against the divers, who had to go on kicking and thrashing about just to stay where they were, picking gold like buttercups in a meadow. The old bucket-squad technique was too dangerous on that busy plot of sand. A diver simply picked up a handful of coins, stuffed them into the cuff of a glove he wore on his other hand, grabbed as many more as he could carry, and went upstairs to unload. They got sixty to eighty pieces at a time like that. Afraid the weather might change, nobody paused for coffee or food; they hardly stopped to rest, though it was grueling work. By the end of the day the men’s wrists, where they had stuffed the gold pieces, were raw and bloody, but they had collected 1,033 gold coins. It was a record-breaking day. Next day they found 900 gold doubloons. In a week they recovered about 2,500. Then, as all things must, it came to an end. Evidently the gold had all been found, though a few scattered coins did turn up from time to time. Elsewhere they found a small gold pendant portraying a saint’s head, and gold and silver disks, with mint and assayer’s marks on them.
Hurricanes closed the diving season late in August, but the men were not inclined to grumble. Counting up their winnings for 1964 was a pleasant occupation: more than thirty-seven hundred gold coins, over two hundred pounds of pieces of eight, six silver and six gold disks, the silver bar, sixteen gold rings, eight pieces of golden chain, several pieces of silver cutlery (knives, forks, and spoons), two silver candlestick tops, and two silver plates. There were also a number of interesting artifacts—cannon, cannonballs, sounding leads, pewter plates, musket balls, and various jars, even a sword handle and part of its blade.
One problem that faced them was the discoloration of the silver pieces of eight. Nobody looking at these black or brownish fragments corroded with silver sulfide would think much of them: they had to be cleaned up. The treasure hunters and their wives tried scrubbing them with everything they could think of—steel wool, acid, sand, soda; nothing was satisfactory. It was true that a person could turn out a shining silver coin, but at the cost of the skin on his hands. Finally they rigged up a box that was rotated by electric power, put in some silver coins along with a handful of steel shot and some detergent, and turned it on. Round and round went the box, rattling loudly. At last! After a certain amount of this buffeting, the silver came out bright.
After making their inventory, the divers talked things over. In spite of all that treasure in the vaults, they were hard up. Though they knew it would be unwise to unload too much gold and silver on the market, they decided to try just a bit of it, as a balloon, and some of their prize pieces, accordingly, were sent to a coin auction being held in October in New Jersey. One gold coin, a “beautiful eight-escudo piece,” the best of the collection, was put up for sale first. They had estimated it as $4,000: it went for $3,500. Not a bad guess, Wagner said to himself, and he took heart. Another coin outdid it, going to a Spanish dealer for $3,600—and the buyer was later quoted as calling it a steal.
In all they sold a hundred coins, from which they realized $29,000. When all outstanding debts had been settled and each man’s expenses paid, the rest of the money was divided according to agreement. Some had a few thousand to show for it, one or two only a thousand dollars. It seemed ironic, as Wagner commented, that though they had recovered treasure probably worth millions, they were only able to pocket a few thousand dollars. But presumably it was a temporary state of affairs, one of the small trials of dealing in a managed market where one’s commodity had a scarcity value.