WASHINGTON — The weekend after Hurricane Hugo hit the South Carolina coast, James Lamb, coin director of Christie's, the New York auction house, made a secretive trip to a Southern port city.
Lamb won't name the city but will say that he went there to see what has become the talk of the coin community: the horde of gold coins and bullion pulled from the wreck of the SS Central America before the hurricane struck.
"It was very, very exciting," Lamb said. "I spent (a day) down there. It was the most extraordinary day of my career."
For Lamb, that's quite a statement. Among the numismatic experts who have reviewed the list of coins and gold bars taken from the wreck, 200 miles off Charleston, there is widespread agreement that the find is certain to make investors in the Columbus American Discovery Group wealthy indeed. The gold, unloaded recently from a salvage ship in Norfolk, Va., has been valued at $28 million to $450 million.
"There has never been anything like this," Lamb said. "One of the things that makes a difference from other shipwrecks is that the coins appear to be in good shape."
None of the hundreds of U.S. gold coins recovered, thus far, from the 132-year-old wreck have knocked the coin community on its ear. The most impressive find has been the pioneer gold coins and bars, which were produced by assay offices in California and were being shipped East when the Central America sank in a hurricane in 1857.
Eleven pioneer coins have been catalogued thus far, and the American Numismatic Assn. says eight of them, $50 gold pieces from the U.S. Assay Office in San Francisco, have the highest value, up to $20,000 each.
Even so, that places the value of the individual coins well below the record $1.35 million reportedly paid for a 1852 $20 pioneer gold coin produced by San Francisco's Augustus Humbert. That coin was reported to be of mint uncirculated quality.
What is making a review of the Central America's coins difficult is that many were discovered welded together by time and marine life. The salvage teams have not decided whether to break some of those coins apart to assess their value.
What has excited most experts has been the large number of gold bars and coins from California's pioneer mints, including Kellogg & Humbert, Harris Marchant & Co., Justh & Hunter, and Henry Hentsch.
The larger gold bars weigh 5 to 750 ounces each and are stamped with an assayer's mark, a serial number and the bar weight in troy ounces, the parts per thousand gold and its dollar value when the bar was melted. As of mid-September, the Columbus America group reported it had recovered 494.21 troy pounds of gold in bars alone.
"At the moment, there aren't that many of them in collectors' hands," Lamb said. "If you had any collector who had 20 of these, you had a great deal."
As for the hundreds of gold coins from U.S. Mints, "it's difficult to say without looking at the individual coins," said Stephen Bobbitt, a spokesman for the American Numismatic Assn. in Colorado Springs, Colo. "But Robert Hoge, our curator, says it doesn't look as if there is anything of major significance" among the coins.
The highest-priced U.S. coin, according to the ANA's review, could be $7,750 for a $5 gold "Classic Head" coin, produced between 1834 and 1838. If the condition is judged poor, however, that same coin could be worth as little as $250.
NEXT STEP A key to how much the find ultimately will be worth will rest in how the gold coins and bars are marketed. That question will require so much care, experts say, that it may be years before many of the coins even reach the market.