- 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
It was time, the Real Eight decided, to apply scientific principles to their new site, at least as scientific as possible. They used a grid system and mapped out the territory, marking each square once it had been carefully investigated. More and more finds were made. They called in Mel Fisher and his Treasure Salvors to help bring up the silver, and all of them moved, slowly, patiently, and perhaps inexorably, across the chart. They even began to feel bored as the torrent of silver kept clanking down on deck. (The ship, they felt sure, was the capitana of the Silver Fleet, captained by Ubilla).
One day Rex Stocker came up unusually quickly. “Mr. Johnson, there’s a chest of silver down there,” he reported.
Practical joking was the crew’s favorite pastime, and Johnson refused to be drawn. “If you say so,” he replied. “Go on down and bring it up.”
Nobody had ever seen a wooden chest in the wreck sites. Wood from the Fleet was unknown, the teredo worms having long since eaten every scrap. But Rex insisted that he was telling the truth: there really was a chest down there, full of silver. He was persuasive enough, at last, to get Del Long to come down with him for a look, and Long came up almost immediately, saying that it was true: there really was a chest down there, just as Rex had said. After that, of course, everybody went to have a look—”a blackish-colored wooden container,” Wagner described it, “about three feet long, a foot or so wide, and about a foot deep.” One end of the lid was missing; otherwise the chest seemed intact, which was amazing. And it was, indeed, full of silver. The divers went into a huddle and agreed that every effort must be made to bring the chest up undamaged. It probably weighed in the neighborhood of two hundred pounds and would, of course, need careful handling. First the chest had to be worked loose, ever so gently, of the sand that had covered it and preserved it from the teredos. This took four hours. When that was completed, a piece of plywood was slid carefully underneath and the whole arrangement was lifted with lines, a man watching every corner in order to protect it. As soon as the chest was landed safely on deck, it was immersed in a tub of water. Otherwise, explained Wagner, the sun would dry it out of shape and even rot it. It was lined with lead. The pieces of eight were clotted in clumps, fused together like so many others, but the number was estimated at about one thousand.
The 1965 diving season soon came to an end with a hurricane, but the divers were satisfied with their year, and with good reason.
The Real Eight eventually built the Museum of the Sunken Treasure to house their incredible trove, and Emily Hahn went to visit there in 1979. It had by then suffered two robberies, and the collection included imitations or photographs of many of the original treasures. Still, the underwater scenes, with gold coins shining in the sand, and the original chest full of silver coins (still protected in freshwater) are awesome. “Phony or not,” Hahn says, “there was something about all that glitter. …”
Kip Wagner, the first modem man to grow rich on the lost treasure of Spain, died in 1972—a millionaire.