Saturday, 21 May 2016

Treasures of the Atocha

Spanish expansion in the New World was rapid and by the late 1500's Mexico City, Lima and Potosi had populations that exceeded the largest cities in Spain. Spanish settlers were given vast tracts of land to grow tobacco, coffee and other products for export. Far more important to the throne was the wealth of silver and gold, which were vital to Spain's continued dominance as a global power.

Trade with the colonies followed a well-established system. Beginning in 1561 and continuing until 1748, two fleets a year were sent to the New World. The ships brought supplies to the colonists and were then filled with silver, gold, agricultural products and sometimes the colonists for the return voyage back to Spain.
The fleets sailed from Cadiz, Spain early in the year. Upon arrival in the Caribbean, the two fleets would split up, the Nueva España Fleet continuing on to Veracruz, Mexico and the Tierra Firme Fleet to Portobello in Panama. Here, the ships were unloaded and the cargo of silver and gold brought aboard. For the return trip the divided fleets reassembled in Havana, then rode the Gulf Stream north along the coast of Florida before turning east when at the same latitude as Spain.

The treasure fleets faced two main obstacles; weather and pirates. The hurricane season began in late July, so the operation was timed for an earlier departure. For protection against pirates, each fleet was equipped with two heavily armed guard galleons. The lead ship was known as the Capitana. The other galleon, called the amaranth, was to bring up the rear. A recently constructed 110 foot galleon, the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, was designated the amaranth of the Tierra Firme Fleet.


The fleet departed Spain on March 23, 1622 and after a brief stop continued on to the Colombian port city of Cartagena, arriving in Portobello on May 24th. Treasure from Lima and Potosi was still arriving by mule train from Panama City. It would take 2 months to record and load the Atocha's vast cargo in preparation for departure. Finally, on July 22, the Tierra Firme Fleet set sail for Havana, via Cartagena, to meet the fleet returning from Veracruz.

In Cartagena, the Atocha received an additional cargo load of treasure, much of it gold and silver from Santa Fe de Bogotá. As a military escort, the Atocha carried a company of 82 infantrymen to defend the vessel from attack and possible enemy boarding. For this reason, she was the ship of choice for wealthy passengers and carried a large portion of the fleet's treasure.

On Sunday, September 4th, with the weather near perfect, the decision was made to set sail for Spain. The twenty-eight ships of the combined fleet raised anchor and in single file set a course due north towards the Florida Keys and the Gulf Stream current.

The Atocha, sitting low from its heavy cargo, took up its assigned position in the rear. By evening the wind started to pick up out of the northeast growing stronger through the night.
The Atocha, Santa Margarita, Nuestra Señora del Rosario and two smaller vessels at the tail end of the convoy received the full impact of the hurricane. All five ships were lost, the Atocha being lifted high on a wave and smashed violently on a coral reef. She sunk instantly, pulled to the bottom by her heavy cargo. The next day, a small merchant ship making its way through the debris rescued five Atocha survivors still clinging to the ship mizzenmast.
They were all that were left of 265 passengers and crew.
Mel Fisher formed a company called Treasure Salvors and began searching in earnest for the much talked about Atocha.

His efforts over a sixteen-year period from 1970 to 1986 led to the discovery of the Santa Margarita in 1980 and the Atocha on July 20, 1985, her hull lying in 55 feet of water, exactly as recorded by the first salvagers in 1622.

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Lost in the shipwreck of Nuestra Señora de Atocha, Florida Keys, 1622

Estimation: 150,000 - 250,000 USD

LOT SOLD. 410,500 USD (Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium)

NOTE DE CATALOGUE: The magnificent emerald jewel of the lost Atocha showcases the largest faceted stone in the group of emerald-set jewels recovered from the shipwreck of the famous Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha.

A gold chalice from the Margarita was the top selling lot, fetching $413,000.
A collection of shipwrecked 17th and 18th century Spanish treasure discovered off the coast of Florida was sold in New York in 2015 for about $2m.

US treasure hunter Mel Fisher was most famous for discovering the shipwrecked Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha, which went down in a hurricane in 1622, laden with new world riches.
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A gold crucifix with inlaid Colombian emerald jewels went for $119,000.
After searching for some 16 years, treasure hunter Mel Fisher unearthed the treasures of Atocha near the Florida Keys in 1985. 40 items from the impressive cache went up for auction in New York City on August 5, 2015.

A gold bar from the Atocha made $93,750.

The golden spoon was thought to be used by priests during Communion to convert South American natives. $62,000.
The haul includes two spectacular gold chains, one called a 'money chain'. Fisher wore it on the 'Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson' soon after the ship's discovery. It brought $75,000

In the Colonial era, the Spanish king placed a 20 percent tariff on gold bullion called the Royal Fifth. But if the gold was turned into jewelry, the tax was forgiven. Each link of the 'money chain' is of equal size and weight and could be twisted off and used as formal currency.
Also up for auction was a Bezoar Stone, which was believed to remove poisons and toxins from liquids. The pendant, about the size of an egg, is encased in a gold mounting with four arms grasping the stone.
A magnificent emerald jewel from the lost Atocha. It made $ 410,000 in 2013

The Guernsey's sale also offered about 100 silver coins from the Atocha sister ship, the Santa Margarita, ranging from $1,000 and up.