- 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
To train the group, and make sure that their enthusiasm was more than temporary, Wagner persuaded the men to practice during the summer weekends on a wrecked galleon about twenty miles away. Its location was well known; “it was a kind of proving ground for amateurs.” They bought and repaired a battered launch, which they named Sampan, worked on a sand dredge, and after laboriously shifting ballast rocks on the ocean floor, they began to find pottery shards, cannonballs, and at last, real pieces of treasure—pie-shaped silver wedges. They also found silver coins, one great clump of them that proved to be worth over $30,000. Wagner obtained salvage rights on the site, and the eight men formed themselves into a corporation, named the Real Eight—the old Spanish name for piece of eight—with Wagner as president.
Though Wagner in his unworldliness had originally protested the idea of incorporation, the arrangement turned out to be a good one, and very necessary. The president didn’t yet realize it, but the Real Eight was going to be big business.
During the many stormy days that followed, the divers could not control themselves. They had the habit now, and waiting was hard, so they went every day to the beach even when it was no use hoping for good weather. They couldn’t possibly dive into the murky waters and hope to see anything, but it was a good object lesson as to how so much treasure could have lain hidden all those centuries. The sea bottom, which had been three fathoms deep, was now only two fathoms, and the cannon they had seen before were completely hidden. Obviously the orporation had to invent a new, more efficient dredge against the time when they could get down there again. Besides, now they had begun work on another site.
For the dredge, they tried one thing after another. By spring in 1961 they had a sand pump that worked but went so slowly it wasn’t practical. They manufactured another contraption only to learn one morning in May that most of the sand had got itself swept off the site without their help. Hardly had they got started diving, however, when a new storm put most of the load back on. There was nothing for it but to return to the drawing board, this time to produce a good reliable dredge. This one really worked, so well that they named it “the hungry beast.” Everything—at least everything less than six inches in diameter—was sucked into its maw to be spewed out into a metal basket after passing through a nine-foot-long shaft. In the middle of June they brought up their first coins of the season, thanks to this dredge. They found through experience that the best way to harvest coins was to catch them before they went into the rubber tubing that formed part of the dredge. It wasn’t hard, reported Wagner—the coins floated around in a leisurely way, and you had only to cup your hands to catch them. During the summer the divers brought up hundreds of coins, all silver. “Sometimes we worked all day and only recovered 10 or 15 coins; some days we found none; and on other occasions we found hundreds of them,” wrote Wagner. “Our workhorse dredge also spit out silver buckles, iron ships’ spikes, potsherds and other assorted items. We found, too, about 20 cannon over a 50- to 60-foot area along the reefs.”
When the weather was too bad for work, they returned to the Fort Pierce site—their practice area, where the water was clearer—to look again for silver pie wedges. They had no luck there, but in September, when they were just about ready to call it a season, they made one more find, a small cluster of coins. They now had found several thousand pieces of eight and were willing to pause and take stock. It was time, they agreed, to cash in on some of their findings and use the money for some much-needed improvement in their work conditions. There should be a cabin on the Sampan for one thing, where divers could rest and get warm. They needed new diving suits too. Very carefully, so as not to flood the market, the treasure finders sold a few silver pieces of eight and were delightfully surprised to find how much they were worth—from ten or fifteen to over a hundred dollars apiece. Dated coins in mint condition brought as much as a hundred and fifty, undated ones sold for thirty-five to fifty, and even the worst of them went for ten to fifteen. When they had enough money for their needs, they stopped selling.
Over the winter of 1961, when it was impossible to dive, they simply went swimming offshore, close in when the waves were too rough for boating. One of the men found three or four tops to silver jars that way. The real find was made by a member who had developed a method of searching a nearby coral reef in shallow water by fanning sand and gravel out of its crevices. One day he went swimming with a toy wooden paddle. He hadn’t even brought his scuba gear with him, so he had to duck in and come out very often to breathe. But he kept at it, fanning away, until he saw something bright and round beginning to appear under the sand. At first he thought it was the top of a beer can, but as he worked he realized that it was thicker than that, like a pot lid. At last he nudged it out. It was a battered piece of sculpture, the figure of a moth in silver, evidently the ornamental stopper for a brandy carafe or something of that sort. One thing was certain—it was a Spanish stopper.
Inevitably, the National Geographic found the treasure finders and signed them up for an exclusive story. In their innocence Kip Wagner and his partners did not realize that the contract held them to silence until the Geographic felt like publishing the story in its own sweet time—as things turned out, it was four years later.