E-Sylum reader and contributor Bob Evans was the Chief Scientist and Historian for the Columbus-America Discovery Group, the team that recovered the fabulous gold treasure from the wreck of the S.S. Central America. Lawsuits surrounding the company and its founder Tommy Thompson have driven a number of one-sided accounts in the media, some of which have been reported here in E-Sylum. Bob submitted the following open essay to our community of numismatists. It's lengthy, but there's no shortage of virtual paper and ink in cyberspace. What follows is a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of the finding, inventorying, and ultimate disposition of the recovered treasure. Thanks!
An open essay for the readers of E-Sylum:
The readers of this forum are an on-line community of intelligent and discerning numismatists, many of whom have a deeper interest in the S.S. Central America treasure than average folks. The popular press, newspapers and wire stories, have been the only recent sources for information about the ongoing court cases and legal entanglements involving this great treasure and the people involved with it. These sources are flawed, through the hasty process by which they operate, and by the bias of presenting almost exclusively one side of the story. In the course of years the “news” has allowed misconceptions and inaccuracies to drift into the discussions. As someone intimate with the subject, and yet not embroiled in the legal brouhaha, I offer the following perspective, in hopes that this community might enjoy a more complete understanding of a very complex subject.
I was Tommy Thompson’s friend. I accept that readers might judge that there is bias on my own part because of this fact, but I would like to state that it is a different bias, and so some form of balance may result.
The numismatic world has followed with interest the continuing legal cases involving Tommy Thompson and the business of the S.S. Central America
treasure. Thompson’s reputation received an additional blow this week when U.S. Marshals began posting his image and that of his assistant on digital billboard “wanted posters” in Columbus, Ohio, the SSCA Project’s hometown, and in Vero Beach, Florida, Thompson’s last known address. He has been a fugitive since last August, when U.S. District Judge Edmund A. Sargus Jr. issued an arrest warrant for him for contempt of court, after he failed to appear in Sargus’s court for several years.
Another legal proceeding, a state case in the Franklin County (Columbus,) Ohio Court of Common Pleas, contests Thompson and his companies’ actions and inactions in the course of over two decades of business. Over most of the course of these lawsuits, a period of several years, I was perfectly happy to be uninvolved, since the cases are reminders about some of the worst human qualities, and just how tricky the business of treasure finding can be. It is instructive to realize that Thompson’s companies have been involved in active court cases for 25 of the past 28 years.
For those of you who may not know, it was my responsibility, a great personal honor, and a truly wonderful experience to be the caretaker of this treasure during the recovery and post-recovery phases of its journey from the seafloor to market and display. Originally, I was a young geologist, Tommy Thompson’s neighbor and friend. In 1983 I began my involvement with the S.S. Central America . I became the “Chief Scientist and Historian” for Columbus-America Discovery Group, which was the operating entity headed by Thompson, and which was the discoverer and salvor of the S.S. Central America treasure. In that capacity I was present on board during all the recovery of the treasure. As “Mission Coordinator,” I worked with the engineers to plan the dives, and I applied my knowledge and research of the history of this remarkable shipwreck and treasure to realize the project’s goals.
The recovery was executed by means of a remote-controlled robot submarine. Now, almost twenty-two years after we last visited the shipwreck site, it is easy to forget what an enormous technical achievement this was at the time. Our control and logging systems for the recovery were handled through the equivalent of five or six XT computers, with combined digital memory less that what is commonly carried in an average pocket these days. A great many innovations have been introduced for robotic technology since then, but the event and the achievement are still unsurpassed. When treasure was recovered I initiated a meticulous system of record keeping. I was the treasure’s curator, first for the finders and later for the California Gold Marketing Group. The physical treasure was under my personal control or supervision for almost all of its journey from the seafloor to market.
Inaccurate and misleading press:
I would like to remind readers of the popular press that journalists are motivated to write interesting prose. They also write with deadlines and word counts in mind, and news writers tend to not be completely comprehensive and accurate in their reportage. They are not required to cite references or footnote their text. There are standards of course, “fact checking” and the like. But when one of the plaintiffs is the parent company of the principal newspaper reporting the trials, readers should be careful. Except for an occasional sentence here and there, only one side of the story has been seen in the popular press.
As an example of this bias and liberty of language, I offer the following flowery description of Tommy in the FoxNews wire article from August 27, 2012, “But like a pirate captain who refuses to share the booty, Thompson stiffed his crew and investors…” only then adding, “according to a lawsuit…” I guess people want to believe this stuff. I had to smile, and then frown. My old friend, boss and colleague was simply not that colorful or swashbuckling. He was hardly Jack Sparrow or Blackbeard. Think more along the lines of Dilbert in charge of the operation.
In the current instance the tendency to sway from pure objectivity is compounded by the fact that one of Thompson major legal adversaries is The Dispatch Printing Company, the publisher of The Columbus Dispatch, the hometown newspaper of the S. S. Central America Project and of the lawsuits. Through this company, its owners were large investors in the treasure project. They are also very well connected in the world of journalism. They and another closely allied investor are suing Thompson in the Court of Common Pleas over an accounting of corporate finances. It should be noted that they are minority of the investors/partners, a group now numbering in the hundreds.
A group being portrayed as Tommy’s “crew” is also suing, saying they are owed “millions.” That action is being pursued through the Federal Court.
I will not belabor this point too much, but I can cite many examples of “spin” and factual drift in the coverage of my old friend Thompson. For instance, the FoxNews article about the warrant for Tommy’s arrest refers to California Gold Marketing Group as “a California mint.” As another example of the long-standing practice of slanted coverage, Miriam Gottfried, one of two co-authors from Forbes magazine, interviewed me by phone for the June 19, 2006 article “Ship Of Fools.” (How’s that title for bias?) I spent close to an hour talking to Ms. Gottfried, but apparently I had nothing sufficiently disparaging to say about Thompson, and I was not quoted once in the article. The press’s constant use of terms like “loot” and “booty,” both suggesting stolen or ill-gotten rewards, are reminders that the search for colorful synonyms can lead to confusion and assumption of wrongdoing, whether intentional or not on the part of the writers.
Some key facts have never been discussed in the coverage of this case. Thompson has declined to appear in court and offer counter-testimony to his detractors. His reasons are his own. But this means that the plaintiffs’ spin on issues has been given free rein in the media.
The Federal Case:
The group filing the federal suit, the “crew” that is allegedly being “stiffed,” is led by Mike Williamson, the principal of the sonar company that was employed in our search for the shipwreck site. Williamson has been joined in the suit by some of his associates from the sonar crew, along with one or two others from other seasons or phases of the project. The FoxNews article uses simile to suggest that Thompson has stiffed his “crew,” implying that his entire crew is suing. This is not true, although Williamson and his associates could accurately be considered among the crew.
I do not know the full details of Thompson’s contract with Williamson or the others, but is my recollection and understanding that they were promised a small percentage of the net proceeds, not of the treasure in kind, and not based on its gross value. I also can state without doubt or hesitation that we acted on Williamson and Associates’ analysis of the sonar anomalies they imaged in 1986, and this caused us to spend an entire season (1987) and millions of dollars pursuing false targets, the wrong wrecks. In 1986, being a land-based geologist, I had had no previous experience with such sonar surveys. So, during that season I provided “shore support” from our home office in Columbus, communicating key details of our historical and scientific preparatory studies to the expedition.
Several sonar anomalies were found, and Williamson and Associates prepared a list of the most promising, which they called the “Hit Parade.” In their opinions, one anomaly in particular matched our target model remarkably well. It showed a mid-ship sonar shadow that looked like a side-wheel. Before concluding the 40-day search expedition the sonar crew collectively “voted” on board ship, rendering a 90 per cent confidence that this shipwreck was the Central America. In a logbook they had marked the anomaly that ultimately proved to be the shipwrecked S.S. Central America as a “large geological object,” and they did not include this image in the Hit Parade.
So, we spent the entire 1987 at-sea season (I was aboard ship that year for 115 days) studying and visiting both the prime and secondary Williamson targets, comparing those actual shipwrecks with their respective sonar images. Although the secondary target proved to be a shipwreck from the correct period, with artifacts from the 1850s, we found no gold. While reviewing the rest of the sonar records in the ‘87-’88 off-season, I came across the image of the actual S.S. Central America , identified by Williamson and Associates as a “large geological object,” essentially a pile of rocks. This story was recounted in some detail in Gary Kinder’s best-selling book about the project, Ship of Gold: In the Deep Blue Sea. We went through the same story in exhaustive detail during the 1993 salvage trial (or re-trial) in Federal District Court in Norfolk, VA.
As I said, I don’t know the details of their contract(s,) but the fact that this group now claims to be owed millions of dollars strikes me as particularly strange. It is personal for me, in no small part because I spent almost four months at sea in 1987, and risked my relationship with the woman who is the love of my life, over Williamson and Associates’ erroneous analysis. They were supposed to be the experts.
The State Case:
Regarding the other legal case, I am not an accountant or any kind of expert on such practices in business, and so I will not say anything concerning the details of the business accounting of the project. This subject seems to be the gist of the lawsuits. But as near as I have been able to determine, the plaintiffs’ accusations about missing millions is founded on optimistic projections from press releases and statements made shortly after we found “the treasure.” When these statements were made we did not know what we might find ultimately, or what it would bring in the market. One figure was $400 million. According to both the suit of the “crew” and the suit of the investors they have never received a sufficient accounting of the proceeds. The plaintiffs called into question the accounting of the treasure as well.
Last fall this issue drew me into the state lawsuit as an expert witness for Thompson’s company. I was never compensated for this testimony, but I offered it in defense of the treasure and my work with it. I have not been employed by Thompson's company since the early months of 2000, when I went to work for Dwight Manley and the California Gold Marketing Group. Essentially, as its curator, conservator and principal spokesman, I followed the treasure to market.
So I know exactly what happened to the physical treasure. Thinking that this matter was clear, I remained silent about the issue of the quantity of gold recovered from the S.S. Central America shipwreck. I stayed out of the lawsuits, which began in 2005, well after I left the company. They were none of my business. Then, in their zeal to paint Tommy Thompson in the most unfavorable of colors, the plaintiffs began to call the accounting of the treasure itself into question in their pleadings. Last summer the popular press began throwing loose phrases about the treasure into the coverage.
From the FoxNews article (08/27/12): “How much of the Central America's gold was recovered is unclear, though Thompson sold bars and coins to a California mint for $52 million.”
This sentence is loose and open to misinterpretation, which has subsequently occurred. The casual reader will misconstrue “How much of the gold was recovered…” with “How much gold…” After the FoxNews article I began to get questions from friends, collectors and numismatists about the integrity of my work with the treasure. Just because Thomas G. Thompson had not voluntarily released a full financial accounting of his businesses to those who are suing him, this does not by extension mean that the amount of the gold itself that was recovered from the shipwreck site is unclear.
This was compounded by the matter of the “missing coins.” One of the points of contention is the lawsuits is that there are 500 gold “coins” that either are or were in Thompson’s possession. The press coverage sometimes states that these were “commemoratives.” Sometimes it does not. The general public and other reporters don’t understand the subject, and so confusion ensues. A popular misconception has emerged that there is an “unknown amount” of treasure missing. This is not true.
These 500 coins are commemorative re-strikes of the historical 1855 Kellogg & Co. $50 gold pieces. On each day, from August 20 to September 12, 2001, a total of 5,000 of these commemoratives were produced for California Gold Marketing Group by personnel from The Gallery Mint: Ron Landis, Joe Rust and their staff. The coins were minted at The Presidio in San Francisco, commemorating the anniversary of the departure of the S.S. Central America gold from San Francisco, its voyage to Panama, the crossing of the isthmus, and its northbound voyage until lost in the shipwreck.
Landis and Rust used a transfer technique to produce the dies for the re-strikes, expertly copying the original dies from Kellogg, which had survived. The gold for these coins was derived from Kellogg & Humbert ingots recovered from the S.S. Central America, thus using Kellogg gold to re-produce Kellogg’s design. The faces of the ingots, known in numismatic circles now as “faceplates,” were saved, and can be found here and there on bourse floors and in auctions. Attached are photos of the obverse and reverse of a re-strike, in this case produced on August 20, 2001, as counterstamped on the reverse. All of the commemoratives are similarly counterstamped with their production dates.
What has been recovered? What remains?
The point here is that treasure is not missing. The inventory has been published. There is no other gold that has been recovered. Perhaps the math is not simple, but it is not beyond the talents of the most elementary minds, or at least the reasonably educated.
The gold, as recovered, reported to the U.S. District Court, and examined by the insurance claimants’ court-appointed expert Fred Holabird during the 1990s, was fully adjudicated and accepted prior to the in-kind division, which occurred on June 16, 1998. When the treasure came to market in 2000 the breakdown of holdings of the insurance claimants and Columbus-America was released. No secrets!
There were 532 ingots recovered. Descriptions of these can be found in the wonderful book by Q. David Bowers, A California Gold Rush History, as illustrated by the Treasure of the S.S. Central America . This is not some obscure source. This well-known, massive volume won “Book of the Year” from the Numismatic Literary Guild, and it has garnered wide acclaim.
As for the coins, if one takes the coins described in the sale catalogue from Sotheby’s (the portion of the treasure that was awarded “in kind” to the insurance claimants, and combines it with the inventory as reported in the Christie’s sale catalogue (which is an accounting of coins awarded to Columbus-America Discovery Group as the successful salvors) this yields a full inventory of the coins. It comes to a little over 7,500 gold coins. In addition, there was over twenty pounds of native gold, “dust” and nuggets that we recovered. This native gold also went to the insurance claimants as part of the in-kind division.
That’s it folks! My advice is, accept it. There is no “missing” treasure.
A great deal of treasure remains on the shipwreck site. Many contemporary accounts, published opinions of other authors, and my own analysis and logic indicate that the passengers were carrying an amount roughly equal to the listed commercial shipment. This shipment was $1,219,189.43 according to a reliable newspaper account (Aspinwall Courier, September 4, 1857.) Passengers had paid at least $150 for passage, $300 for First Cabin accommodations. Let’s say that the 400-plus passengers carried $2,500 apiece, or $1 million. With another logical assumption, that this gold was in the form of double eagles, we get tens of thousands of gold coins remaining on the shipwreck site.
Legal entanglements have precluded further treasure recoveries, and the marvelous scientific and educational opportunities that lie dormant, a mile and a half deep in the Atlantic. This is a shame!
There are many details that I could not address, even in this lengthy essay. I welcome questions and comments, either on this forum or in private at my email address:
Geologist, Historian, Curator
Many thanks to Bob for his essay, which The E-Sylum is happy and proud to publish. The best thing about The E-Sylum is hearing directly from persons in the hobby in a position to know the facts about the question at hand. This definitely sheds some light on the topic and provides a useful counterpoint to stories we've seen in the media. It's an ongoing tale of a slow-motion manhunt, and it's anyone's guess how the court cases will ultimately be resolved.
Wayne Homren, Editor
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