The saga of Kip Wagner, the first modern American to grow rich from ancient Spanish treasure
October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
In nature things have a way of hitting an average if only one waits long enough. May of 1963 turned out to be reasonably good for treasure hunting, nothing special but enough to keep the partners from grumbling too much. They were busy as usual on new equipment inventions. But then, early in June, they struck (or were struck by) a period of unprecedented calm and clarity, when it actually seemed possible to see the limits and boundaries of their prospecting area.
“Visibility ranged from fifty to one hundred feet,” wrote Wagner joyfully.
The actual leased site was one hundred by forty feet, but they had been concentrating on a much smaller plot about twenty feet square, which was so rich in finds that they deliberately went very slowly, moving sand off and examining every inch of it. That day, however, it was all so bright and clear that they resolved to look beyond their particular patch, and it was as well that they did, for they found blocks of coins welded together in such regular shapes that they must have been packed in chests at the time of the wreck. A lot of them slipped out of the clumps as they were being carried up to the top of the water, and when the divers went down again to “vacuum” the sea bed, they discovered a handsome silver crucifix as well. Fortunately, the weather stayed calm for several days, allowing the adventures to uncover a new kind of treasure, a cache of K’ang-hsi china cups and bowls, still as carefully packed as when they were stowed on board. There were twenty-eight in all of these perfect specimens, and, of course, many more in the form of fragments. These too were accompanied by pieces of Mexican pottery. Later, when the Real Eight wrote to an authority on pottery, Mrs. Kammar Aga Oglu at the University of Michigan, and described their find, she told them that the china they had found was exported in vast numbers at the time of the Plate Fleet to be sold cheap, like five-and-dime china today. Its value now, of course, is vastly increased. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has declared it priceless. On another day they found a second gold chain hidden in a cannon’s mouth, where it could not possibly have started the voyage. Attached to it was what had once been a miniature painting, the colors and design under the glass cover long since washed away.
Although the success story was exciting, there were two drawbacks. For one thing—though they may not have felt this way: it is probably more my reaction than Kip Wagner’s—what they had found so far, save for the chains, was silver, not gold. For another, at the rate they were going they would never finish their explorations. It was all very well to be thorough, but if they had to leave a large part of their claim unexamined, it was frustrating. Again, the Real Eight never quite voiced their misgivings on this point, but a third party came along at the right time and put it into words. The two points hang together, so let us begin with the entry of Mel Fisher into the story. Fisher was a professional treasure hunter and diver who went anywhere that promised rewards for his peculiar talents. Possibly, however, he made more money out of a shop he opened in California, where divers could buy the latest thing in gear rather than treasure. On a trip to a diving spot near Puerto Rico, he stopped by to meet the Real Eight. Kip Wagner made him welcome and showed him some maps. Fisher thought things over and came up with a proposition: why shouldn’t he hire a team of professional divers to help the Florida men? They would dive on the Real Eight’s leased sites every day instead of only weekends, which were the Real Eight’s only diving days, and in return for permission to do this, they would split the value of anything they found halfway down the middle, after the state had taken its 25 per cent. If the board agreed, he would get busy and sign up the divers. They agreed.
The diving season of 1963 was well under way when they got the news that Mel Fisher was coming, complete with his gang of divers. The advance messenger, Rupert Gates, went out with some members of the Real Eight on a trial run aboard the Sampan: it was a nice sunny day for diving. Almost immediately they found a few pieces of eight and, later, some silver forks. The men had stopped to rest when two of them decided to try out one more spot. And then at last it happened: one of them found “a beautiful eight-escudo piece as perfect and fresh as the day it had been minted.” Needless to say, it was a gold coin. In fact, it was the first gold coin that anyone in the Real Eight had as yet brought up from the ocean floor. The two men who found it said they were working in eight feet of water when all of a sudden the sand slid away, parting like the Red Sea, and it was if someone had turned a flashlight in their eyes. The floor was covered with gold coins. Now they all got busy, forming a circle around the area and working in. (Gates was with them: it was an extraordinary introduction for him to the Florida diving field.) In all, they found twentythree coins before the weather got too rough for diving—doubloons, four- and eight-escudo pieces, all together. One of the men also got a heavy gold ring, which he saw slipping down a sandy slope: he simply stuck his finger under it and let it slide on. Certainly it all lent a fillip to the proceedings. There is nothing like gold to whet the appetite.