On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, silver, pearls, emeralds, and gold are not exactly alien objects in the tony townhouses of Madison Avenue.
But treasure of a very special kind lies in one of these townhouses: a legendary collection of shipwrecked items dating back to 1622, and later discovered by treasure hunter Mel Fisher and his wife, Dolores.
They are currently on display at Guernsey’s Auctioneers, and will officially hit the auction block today, Wednesday.
It’s a magnificent sight: A long gold chain is positioned next to an impressively large unpolished emerald; an egg-shaped bezoar stone mounted in a shimmering gold cage hovers above dozens of silver coins emblazoned with the cross and shield of Spanish kingdoms.
Shiny silver bars, gleaming gold discs, and a pristine chalice worth half a million dollars also feature among the pieces from the private estate of both Mel & Dolores Fisher, who spent a large portion of their life hunting down and discovering treasures most people only dream about.
They did it “for the fun, the romance, and the adventure,” a New York Times obituary quoted the late diver saying, noting Mel’s optimism in finding his treasures after long periods of failures.
After serving in World War II and traveling around the country, Mel Fisher ended up on his parent’s chicken farm in Southern California. Having had a passion for ocean diving from a very young age, he opened a small surf and dive shop while he worked on the farm.
He met his wife-to-be, Dolores, and the two eventually opened the world’s very first dive shop in Redondo Beach, California.
They taught scuba to thousands, shot underwater footage for education and entertainment, and went about setting world records. (Dolores once stayed underwater for over 55 hours and 37 minutes.)
It was in 1962, on an annual trip for a dive in the Caribbean, that Fisher met treasure hunter Kip Wagner, who was immersed in a dead-end search for almost a dozen Spanish ships from 1715 that had sunk off the coast of Florida. They had stumbled upon what would become a life-long passion for the family.
Fisher and Wagner became partners and began their hunt almost immediately. They each agreed to search for one year without pay, but five days before their deadline the dives were still coming up empty.
It was then that Fisher decided to put his innovative mind to use. According to Guernsey’s president, Arlan Ettinger, Fisher combined “critical thinking with technology,” which allowed him to uncover unseen objects on the ocean floor by affixing a massive tube to the boat’s propeller.
The force from the motor pushed large layers of sand away and revealed 1,033 gold coins and led to a decade-long task of uncovering the many ships from the 1715 Spanish Fleet.
The technique, deemed the “mailbox method,” is still used to search for treasure on the ocean floor.
The thrill from seeing the ocean floor paved with gold helped motivate Fisher’s desire to take on one of the greatest treasure hunts of all time.
For centuries, sister royal guard galleons the Nuestra Señora de Atocha and the Santa Margarita, which sank off the coast of Key West, Florida, during a massive hurricane in 1622, were still undiscovered.
There were Spanish coins, heavy weighted bars, jewelry, and richly ornamented household items on board.
The ships were rumored to hold over 40 tons of gold and silver and the Atocha alone held a value of over $450 million.
For almost two decades, the Fishers—Mel, Dolores, and their five children, Terry, Dirk, Kim, Kane, and Taffi—searched tirelessly for the treasure with only a few small discoveries. It was always a family affair for Mel and at some point or another every member of the family partook in a hunt for the treasure.
In 1973, Mel discovered three silver bars matching the weight and tally numbers from the Atocha’s manifest.
In 1975, Mel’s son Dirk discovered nine bronze cannons that he believed were also from the same ship. Soon after, a significant portion of the Margarita, where some $20 million in gold was waiting, was discovered by Mel’s other son, Kane.
Then, on July 20, 1985, Kane and the crew found a massive collection of silver bars that matched the manifest of Nuestra Señora de Atocha.
“When this treasure was discovered [in 1985], Mel Fisher’s name was on everybody’s lips,” Ettinger told The Daily Beast. “There was the discovery and then his eventual fight with the Supreme Court to keep the material.”
As Ettinger showed me around the collection up for auction, he pointed out some of the most notable finds from the discovery.
A small, ornate golden chalice from the Santa Margarita is among the most valuable.
Engraved with scrollwork and images of animals, a crest at the center of the cup possibly links its ownership to a duke or baron. Discovered in 2008, it is estimated at roughly $500,000.
A palm-sized gold and emerald cross gleams with the brilliant handwork of an expert craftsman. Recovered from the 1715 fleet in 2003, it is believed to have been a gift for the Duchess of Palma by King Philip V of Spain. It is valued at $125,000.
Many of the emeralds discovered in the three shipwrecks were excavated from the Muzo mines in Colombia, which even today sets the highest standard for gems.
The Atocha was believed to have been transporting 60-70 pounds of emeralds (only 10 percent has been found), and the largest up for auction is a staggering 23.89 carats of uncut grade 1AA gemstone (estimate upon request).
According to the auction catalog, “Since the emeralds on the Atocha were intended for King Phillip IV, the owner of this rare gem ‘becomes the direct and first inheritor of King Philip IV by right of documentation authorized by United States Admiralty Law Court.’”
However, at the time of discovery, “it was unclear at that time about the laws governing ownership about discovered property. Was it finder’s keepers? Did it belong to our country or the country it originated hundreds of years ago?” Ettinger explained.
Ultimately, the Fishers were granted complete ownerships and are one of the few estates to still have claim over their finds.
Other items from the collection include roughly 100 coins in silver, gold, and bronze (on which, at that time, one could support a family for a month); one gold and seven silver bars; two gold discs; two gold chains ($40,000-$120,000), a pearl pendant ($12,000); a set of flawless, un-set pearls from Venezuela ($400,000); three emerald rings ($20,000-$80,000), an ornate 22k gold ceremonial spoon ($180,000); a spectacularly detailed and intricate 22k gold frame ($75,000); and a silver communion set ($15,000) for water and wine.
For years the majority of the collection has been on display at various museum-like attractions across Florida, where you can “see the items as well as the techniques used for conservation,” according to Ettinger.
But when Mel passed away in 1998 and Dolores in 2009, it was in their will that part of the private estate collection be sold and the proceeds go toward providing defibrillators to schools across Florida and elsewhere through the Michael Abt Jr. Have a Heart Foundation.
Ettinger explained that their grandson had an incident at school that resulted in his death. Had there been a defibrillator, he may have survived.
“Fisher was an extraordinarily passionate guy, and it’s fair to say a big dreamer who did what a lot of people only think about,” Ettinger said. “The difference is he actually did it—he looked for the buried treasures. He applied his creative thinking to create technology that didn’t exist, and it allowed him to uncover things that may have otherwise never been found.”
And now, a piece of Fisher treasure could be yours.