- 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
That season, in 1962, the members did a little scouting for new wrecks to conquer. They tried an underwater sled, but it came to grief by piling up on a heap of rocks. Two of them got themselves towed by the boat so that they could look around at their leisure: the experiment came to a sudden end when they saw a shark looking at them as if tempted by the moving bait. This incident led to the invention of a shark gun, which worked very well except that one shark took off for deeper waters, the gun spear stuck in his head, and Wagner, who had shot it, had to sacrifice his weapon.
Nevertheless, plain diving was still very productive. They found two muskets that way, as well as a bronze apothecary jar and a gold-plated jewelry box. One of the divers, after sticking his hand inquisitively down the muzzle of a cannon, felt along its underside and found an excrescence of some sort. It was a silver cup and plate firmly cemented to the cannon by coral growth, and it took two of the men three hours of chipping at their prize before they could bring it away. Everyone agreed it was one of the most beautiful of their winnings from the depths of the sea.
The days went by, but there were many stormy ones: indeed, 1962 was an unusually bad year for ocean treasure seekers. One should not complain, sighed Kip Wagner, for after all, if that part of the coast had not been unusually stormy and full of razor-sharp coral reefs, there would have been no wrecks and no treasure ships, but it MXIS a stormy year. He had about decided that there would be no more treasure found until spring. One November day he and his nephew, a nineteen-year-old named Rex Stocker, drove to the beach out of pure habit and started to walk along the sand. Out of habit, too, Wagner carried his metal detector. There had been a good northeaster, and one never knew what would turn up. Sure enough the detector soon gave its signal, and Kip dug up a piece of eight. Fine! The detector led him along, nearer and nearer the water, and he picked up coins at a surprisingly steady pace. In the meantime Rex got bored. He had no metal detector, so he idly climbed the bluff at their backs, near the edge of the high-water mark. Why? Absent-mindedly his uncle wondered, and told himself that there were sure as hell no coins up there. Suddenly Rex jumped up and down and began to shout, “Kip! Kip!”
Rex ran as fast as he could down the bluff and over to Wagner, who now saw that something yellow was wrapped around the boy’s arm. What was it?
“Look what I found up there in the sand!” yelled Rex into his uncle’s ear and handed him a long golden chain. It was genuine gold, there could be no doubt about that, and it was very, very long. Between gasps Rex explained. It had been lying up there on the bluff in plain sight if you were looking, but he wasn’t. The glitter of the sun had flashed into his eyes or he might have stepped straight over it and gone on. What was it doing way up there on the bluff? Kip rubbed his eyes. The chain was knotted and redoubled. At home when they could apply the family tapemeasure they found that it measured eleven feet four and a half inches. The links, beautifully wrought, were shaped like flowers; there were 2,176 of them. In all it weighed nearly half a pound. There was a pendant on the thing, a golden dragon (or possibly, thought Wagner, a grasshopper) about two and a half inches long. The back opened, rather like a Boy Scout knife, into a small toothpick, and its tail was shaped like a small spoon, perhaps an ear reamer. What they did not realize at first, because it was clogged with sand, was that the whole creature constituted a whistle. Later expert opinion has just about decided that it belonged to an admiral of the fleet, which Wagner did not guess.
No rejoicing, it seems, can be completely untouched by regret, and Stocker’s moment of glory was tarnished by a horrid suspicion that he might have passed up another chain. He distinctly remembered that just before he climbed the bluff he felt something twined around one ankle; thinking it was a stalk of waterweed he kicked it off and stepped out of the water. Could it have been another gold chain? Oh well, it might just as well have been a genuine piece of weed. At any rate, a careful sifting of the sands yielded no more gold.
There remained the delicate question of whose chain it was in actual fact. If finders are keepers, it was Rex’s. But the Real Eight wanted above anything to keep it for their collection, so it was agreed that Rex give it up and take instead forty shares in the corporation. Each member contributed five of his shares to make up the forty.
The Real Eight collection was growing beyond the confines of the corporation vaults. It was the intention of the charter members, when they had amassed a good enough lot of treasure, to set up a museum somewhere not far from the wrecks so that the public could see it all. In the meantime, however, though (as Wagner says) it sounded ridiculous, they were hard up for working capital. To be sure, the intrinsic worth of that gold chain, for one thing, was estimated at anything from thirty to fifty thousand dollars, but it is impossible to make accurate appraisals of such works of art. Anyway, they didn’t want to sell it, or any of their other pretty baubles. The situation was alleviated when another partner bought in, and later, in 1964, the Real Eight acquired two more new partners.