HomeUS CoinsPedigrees & Hoards: Shipwreck Coins

Pedigrees & Hoards: Shipwreck Coins

By Rick Bretz for CoinWeek …..
Thanks to a fellow pedigree collector, I’ve started to add shipwreck coins to my collection. There’s a lot of information available on each shipwreck, and the stories are as interesting as any “land-based” hoard so why not?

The nice thing about building any pedigree collection is that you can establish your own rules for a set. You could, for example, collect one example each from the shipwrecks you wish to include. You could also target one shipwreck and collect as many different varieties or dates from it as you can.

Or you could pick and choose from an endless variety of approaches the ones that best suit your own collecting interests.

Personally, I limit my collection to one example from each shipwreck, and the coin must be of United States mintage. I’ll touch on another interesting collection later, but for now let’s move on to a more macro look at the shipwreck-coin collecting niche of our hobby.

NGC Guidelines for Grading Shipwreck Coins

Republic---Louisiana-Issue-AAs to how shipwreck coins are certified and graded, I’ll use NGC as an example.

Grading shipwreck coins is complicated by the environmental conditions the pieces have endured, but in my opinion, Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) has developed a sound and consistent strategy to recognize these conditions and still provide uniform grading standards. For a comprehensive understanding of the process, you can read the complete article detailing the company’s procedures here.

One interesting point they make is that silver coins are susceptible to the “environmental damage” tag and do not receive “hard” numeric grades. However, gold coins–being made of sturdier stuff and not as easily damaged–often avoid the “environmental” tag and receive real grades.

A quick summary for understanding NGC grading is shown below:

Grading Standards for Shipwreck Effect Designated Coins

  • SHIPWRECK EFFECT AA coin exhibiting minimal surface disturbance from saltwater exposure, and exhibiting superior eye appeal for a shipwreck artifact;
  • SHIPWRECK EFFECT BA coin showing evidence of light surface disturbance from immersion in saltwater. May have some areas of moderate disturbance, not affecting central design elements. Coin possesses above-average eye appeal for shipwreck recovery coin;
  • SHIPWRECK EFFECT CA coin displaying moderate disturbance to its surface from exposure to saltwater, while possessing at least average eye appeal for a recovery specimen. Accurate attribution and identification is not hindered by any surface impairment;
  • SHIPWRECK EFFECTPortions of the coin exhibit heavy to severe disturbance from saltwater exposure, with metal loss affecting the design. While accurate identification and attribution may be possible, it is no longer possible to draw conclusive determinations about the coin’s surface prior to saltwater exposure.
                                                 (Source: NGC)

Highlights of Notable Shipwrecks with U.S. Coins

With the help of my aforementioned fellow pedigree collector, I have developed the following summary of notable shipwrecks containing U.S. coins authenticated by NGC and PCGS:

SS New York: The SS New York was a side-wheel steamship that operated between Galveston, Texas, New Orleans and New York City. On September 5-7, 1846, the ship encountered a major hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico after leaving Galveston and was lost at sea. The ship’s cargo included U.S. gold and silver coins as well as foreign coins. Gold coins found in 1990 were thought to have been part of New York’s cargo but confirmation wasn’t forthcoming until 1994. Authenticated by NGC.

SS Central America: The SS Central America operated between New York and San Francisco through the Panama Canal. On Sept. 12, 1857, the ship was caught in a hurricane off the South Carolina coast and sank. When she went down, Central America was carrying primarily U.S. gold with some silver and foreign coins. It was initially found in 1988 but legal battles ensued and recovery is ongoing. Authenticated by PCGS and NGC.

SS Brother Jonathan: The SS Brother Jonathan was a paddle steamer that sank in heavy storms off the coast of California on July 30, 1865. The ship was carrying a large quantity of U.S. gold coins. Located in October 1993. Authenticated by PCGS.

SS Republic: The SS Republic was a Civil War-era side-wheel steamship operating between New York and New Orleans when it was lost in a hurricane on October 25, 1865. The ship contained a fortune in gold and silver coins meant to assist in the rebuilding of New Orleans after the Civil War. Discovered in 2003 off the Georgia/South Carolina coast. Authenticated and Graded by NGC.

As with other pedigree/hoard coins, there’s a lot more to each story and extensive coverage can be found by conducting a web search for the respective shipwreck. In this article, I just want to give the reader a taste of what’s out there.


As I mentioned earlier, there are a number of ways to assemble shipwreck coin collections.

One that I find particularly interesting is a collection limited to 1861-O (New Orleans Mint) Seated Liberty half dollars from the Republic shipwreck. During the year 1861, the New Orleans Mint was operated by three different governments: the United States Federal Government, the State of Louisiana after it seceded but before it joined the Confederacy, and the Confederate States of America (in that order, of course). With the help of the large number of half dollars found on Republic, experts were able to define characteristics (specifically die cracks) unique to each government’s mintage.

Before I close, I would like to pass along a couple tricks I learned identifying listings for shipwreck coins in the “Big Three” auctions:

  1. Heritage: Whether you set up an automatic search program or just use a regular search, the selection criteria default to searching only the listing title. Heritage is extremely inconsistent when it comes to pedigree or shipwreck information in the title line so you’ll miss a large number of coins. I just searched “shipwreck” (April 25, 2015) in the standard Heritage search and found three active auction coins. If I manually modify the default program to also search in the coin description, 21 current shipwreck coin listings appear. That’s 18 more coins that you’d otherwise miss. To me, that’s a big deal, since many of those coins are highly collectible.
  2. eBay: eBay has nothing to do with either the listing or description so it’s tremendously inconsistent and you will miss coins. My suggestion is to try different search term combinations. For example, I was searching for SS Republic coins and I found some that failed to mention the name “SS Republic” but did say “1861-O Shipwreck Coin”. Conversely, when I searched for just the term “shipwreck”, I found listings that failed to include “shipwreck” and only showed “SS Republic”. It’s all over the map, so perseverance is key.
  3. GreatCollections: I don’t have any advice for you here because these guys are consistent and disciplined in how they represent their items. If it has a pedigree, it’s in the title.

Editors Note: One of the most amazing and knowledgeable person and sites with respect to Shipwreck and treasure coins is Daniel FranK Sedwick. Make sure you include them in your search for shipwreck coins

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  1. I take it the last grade for SHIPWRECK EFFECT is supposed to be “D”? Or maybe it is as stated, and there is no alphabetic designation attached to such a coin.


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