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Bob Evans – Chief Scientist of S.S. Central America Ship of Gold Coin Project


This is an excerpt from a much more detailed article to feature in the May/June PCGS Rare Coin Market Report Price Guide Magazine.

Bob Evans is the Chief Scientist on the S.S. Central America Ship of Gold project. PCGS sat down with him in his coin curation lab at PCGS Headquarters in Santa Ana to discuss the project.

Evans gave Free S. S. Central America Informational Seminars at Long Beach Expo on Thursday, February 22 at 11am in Room 102-C, and Saturday, February 24 at 11am in Room 102-B.

Well, I’ve always been interested in science. I’ve always been interested in history. I’ve always been interested in art and music. I’m also a piano player, have been all my life.

But fossils were my thing. As a kid growing up in Whitehall, an East-side suburb of Columbus, Ohio, I could collect fossils from various places – like a neighbor’s gravel driveway.

So I studied geology at Ohio State University, got my B.S. degree and became a consulting geologist in the oil industry.

At the end of 1983, my neighbor Tommy Thompson shared with me this idea about finding the S.S. Central America. There was historical record that could narrow down the location of this sunken ship with a lot of gold on it. He tasked me with taking over historical research. After an incredible amount of digging and reading, I narrowed down a couple of coordinates that we could use to bracket a search area.

In 1988, I proposed a test site that had been initially ruled out as a "large geological feature." I suggested we go there to do some tests. We went there test the ROVs (deep sea submersibles – called Remotely Operated Vehicles). We came upon what we would go on to call "garden of gold" – coins, ingots and gold dust just carpeting the sea floor. It was incredible. And hugely exciting!

Of course, it turned out to be the Central America. Imagine going to an abandoned ghost town from 150 years ago and finding the cash box in the town’s main bank – untouched! Talk about your numismatic finds.

In 2014, I worked with a different group on a second recovery (we brought up the first in the late 1980s) and I’m now, again, working to curate the finds as an archeological site. Every piece of treasure must be carefully documented scientifically. That means noting its original, exact location and a full description. To get that full description, I need to remove deposits on the surfaces of the coins to discover the coin’s original surfaces. On gold coins especially, it’s not too bad. My approach is to not do anything to the surface of the coin but to reveal it for what it really is.

One of the things I really love is the way these objects tell stories. It’s a privilege to be the guy that gets to bring these stories to the world.

An example: one of my favorite coins is an 1854-O Quarter Eagle counter-stamped by J.L. Polhemus, a druggist in Sacramento, California. That coin was made in New Orleans at a time when the New Orleans Mint may well have been using California gold to mint coins. Gold rush gold got around back then!

So then this coin made its way all the way to Sacramento, where a shop keep hammered his name on it. And then, somehow, it made it on to the S.S. Central America, and then, somehow, we brought it back up 150 years later, a couple of hundred miles from North Carolina. That’s just a great story! An example of a great, full-circle journey.

I got to discover it.

And, there are so many stories just like this that I’m getting to uncover!

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