Sunday, December 24, 2006

 

DelTech to auction treasure

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Delaware Online
By Randall Chase
December 24, 2006


GEORGETOWN, Del. -- For almost 20 years, Delaware Technical & Community College's campus in Georgetown has been home to a collection of artifacts pulled from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean by famed treasure hunter Mel Fisher.

Now, the school is preparing to float some of its treasure for coin collectors and history buffs.

Fisher made headlines in 1985 when he found the wreckage of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a Spanish galleon that sank in 1622 off Key West, Fla., with a cargo of gold, silver, and precious gems worth an estimated $400 million.

Among those financing Fisher's exhaustive hunt for the Atocha was the late Melvin Joseph, a Georgetown businessman and entrepreneur who donated some of his take to Delaware Tech's Owens Campus. More than $4 million worth of artifacts, including cannons, coins and jewelry are featured in the school's "Treasures of the Sea" exhibit.

While the exhibit features several examples of Spanish coins, thousands more have been tucked away for years in safe deposit boxes.

On Jan. 7, those coins will go up for sale at a public auction in New York City.

"It's by far the largest group of Atocha coins that have been sold in at least 10 or 15 years," said Warren Tucker, director of world coin auctions for Heritage Auctions of Dallas. "We're just getting bombarded with inquiries about them."

Tucker said the coins -- more than 2,700 of them -- could fetch more than half a million dollars.

Delaware Tech will use proceeds from the sale, minus Heritage's commissions, to establish an endowment named for Joseph and the late poultry magnate Frank Perdue of Salisbury, Md., who also invested in Fisher's expedition and donated artifacts to the school's education foundation.

"These coins were sitting locked in a bank vault and basically were an asset we had that really wasn't working for us," said Bob Hearn Jr., business manager of the Owens campus.

The school will use money from the endowment as the education foundation, which approved the sale in April, sees fit.

"We certainly have a long list of deferred maintenance items on the campus," Hearn noted, adding that the endowment might also be used for scholarships and students services.

School officials are quick to point out that the "Treasures of the Sea" exhibit, which is tucked away in the library building and draws only about 3,000 visitors a year, is not being gutted for the sale.

In fact, at the suggestion of Heritage Auction officials, four coins that had been stored away will be added to the exhibit to complement those already on display.

Gayle Chandler, coordinator of the exhibit, said she was able to see the coins that are being sold during annual audits.

"You open the boxes up, and it's just coin after coin after coin," she said. "It's a great opportunity for the college to get additional funding for the campus."

Tucker said most of the coins being sold are 4-reales and 8-reales pieces, the famous "pieces of 8" from pirate lore. The auction is expected to draw buyers from around the country, as well the West Indies.

"They do a huge business in Atocha material down there; they sell to the tourist trade," said Tucker, adding that the well-publicized hunt for the shipwreck and the recent dearth of artifacts available for purchase should boost interest in the sale.

"There's a huge, pent-up demand," he said. "I think the timing is absolutely perfect."


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