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Lost treasures

It seems hardly possible that one can step from the bustle of Fifth Avenue, New York, into the hush of Tiffany's elegance and, for as little as $250 or as much as $10,000, walk out wearing an authentic piece of sunken treasure.

Booty from the briny deep! Necklaces, pendants, and key rings that were made from tens of thousands of silver "pieces of eight," minted in the New World by Spain, that were lost at sea and languished on the floor of the Caribbean for 337 years.

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They are part of the treasures of the Spanish galleon Concepcion -- treasures ranging from pieces of eight and Ming china to everyday utensils. this latest excavation of Concepcion's cargo has been appraised at $14 million. Under terms of its lease with the Concepcion's finder, the Dominican Republic government took half the ship's wealth, including all her artifacts and much of the silver; the treasure-seekers took the rest.

Currently, these historic relics are on exhibit in Hershey, Pa., in the middle of a five-city tour of the United States.

Only the coins are being marketed. But is it sacrilege to salvage and market such treasurers as these? Some nautical archaeologists contend it is. Treasure-seekers ask: How many thousands of coins can a museum use and display?

In any case, for the man -- and woman -- in the street, such easy adventure into and ownership of the past can happen only because a boy's romantic dream of finding sunken treasure grew into a young man's dogged determination never to give up the search.

It was a long, long trail -- most underwater and strewn with disappointment and danger -- which led Burt D. Webber Jr. to his quarry.

The saga began in the cold mountain stream that flowed past his home, a restored 1826 stone mill house in Annville, Pa., where he grew up half boy, half fish. It climaxed in November 1978 with that soaring, jubilant moment in the warm waters off the Dominican Republic when he discovered the long-lost Spanish treasure galleon, Nuestra Senora de la Pura y Limpia Concepcion.

Many an expedition had tried but failed to pinpoint what is said to be "ye richest ship which ever went out from ye West Indies." Among them the daredevil British auto racer, Sir Malcolm Campbell, Edwin Link, inventor of the Link trainer for pilots, and the monarch of the deep, Jacques Cousteau.

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Quite likely all of them at one time or another passed directly over the spot on what is now called Silver Shoals, a jagged coral reef lurking treacherously just beneath the surface, 85 miles north of the island of Hispaniola (which comprises Haiti and the Dominican Republic). But the scattered fallout from Concepcion, buried deep under sand and overgrown by tons of coral -- all that was left of her -- silently kept its secret for more than three centuries. Concepcion was a legend. Built in Havana in 1620, the year the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, she had made many an Atlantic crossing in Spanish treasure fleets that shuttled between the Old and New Worlds.

Scholars estimate that from 1500 to 1820 some 17,000 return voyages by these high-pooped, top-heavy ships plied the Spanish Main, pouring more than $20 billion of plundered riches into Spain. Amazingly, only 5 percent of that total is said to have been lost or pirated.

In 1641 Concepcion was not so fortunate. Leaky, overcrowded with nearly 500 passengers and crew, and loaded to her gunwales with a year's worth of silver realesm mined and minted in Mexico, Bolivia, and Peru under the enslaving conquistadors, she set sail from Havana on Sept. 20, the admiral's ship in a fleet of galleons returning to Seville, according to survivors' accounts.

The departure was ill-timed, a month too late to dodge the fall hurricane season that still buffets North America's Eastern Seaboard. On Sept. 29 a storm struck with great force, devasting the fleet. It sank and grounded many ships and scattered the rest.

Though mauled by mountainous waves that swept over even here towering, 40 -foot-high poop deck, Concepcion endured the onslaught. Damaged, demasted, and lost,she limped along for three weeks. Against the wise counsel of the admiral, the ship's inexperienced pilots -- who outranked him on such decisions -- tuned southward. Within a week the ship crunched into the reef. Efforts to free her failed . Her stern jammed between two coral heads. Her bow dipped under the surface in 50 feet of water. Another tropical storm sealed her doom. Less than half the passengers and crew onboard survived the ordeal.

The Concepcion disaster was perhaps Spain's greatest maritime loss of the 17 th century. VArious Spanish expeditions to salvage her fabled wealth were fruitless.

But 45 years after the wreck, William Phips, a young Massachusetts shipbuilder-merchant with underwater stars in his eyes, managed to find the site. Aided by Lucayan Indians, a now-extinct Bahamian tribe of pearl divers with prodigious breath-holding power, he salvaged no less than 32 tons of silver , about 13 percent of Concepcion's cargo. In return for his bringing the booty back to england for his king and sponsors, he was knighted in 1691 and appointed the first royal governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In time, knowledge of the ship's whereabouts became lost.

By the 1900s, Concepcion became what John Grissom, author of "The Lost Treasures of the Concepcion" (William Morrow & Co., Inc., 1980), calls "the Mt. Everest of the treasure hunting world." She fascinated explorers not only for her storied wealth but also because of her rare historical importance: the only one of Spain's countless treasure galleons having a direct connection with an early American English colony.

Burt Webber was one nauticl explorer who was not obsessed with finding this mystery ship which had eluded so many others. "With me, it has never been the money that mattered," he says. "You have to pay the bills and have a sense of security for your wife and children. But I am not a security-oriented person. No. to me it has always been the quest, the adventure, pursuing the dream, trying to do the impossible. something daring, something that has a challenge to it."

All through his childhood and teens he was spellbound by books on sunken wrecks. Exploits by the US Navy's underwater demolition teams during World War II inspired him.By 16 he was scuba diving in the stone quarries of Pennsylvania. He skipped collee to go directly into he Divers Training Academy in Miami. His first expedition, "working" an 18th- century wreck in 1961 with Arthur McKee of McKee's Museum of Sunken Treasure, Plantation Key, fla., set his sails.

"It was hoped there would be treasure there," Mr. Webber said. "There wasn't. But the underwater operations, the excavations, the recoveries that we made were so fascinating that I was enthralled. From that venture on, I knew I had to find some means to make this a career."

He chose himself a tough course. Expeditions he went on with others were haphazard, poorly planned ventures that came to naught. Finally he struck out on his own trying to track down wrecks off Florida and in the Bahamas. There were many years of disappointments.

Aside from the dangers of diving, he has found that deep sea salvage is an intensely competitive fiedl, with many parties competing for the same leases.

In between times he endured the humiliation of having to return to his hometown in defeat, working in welding assembly lines, in brick plants, peddling encyclopedias -- anything to support his wife, Sandy, and their four children.

It was Jim Haskings, Mr. Webber's researcher, who finally suggested that the Concepcion, known also as Phips's galleon, warranted effort. "I think there is a lot of treasure there that is unfound," Mr. Haskins concluded. "All the records say that Phips could not get into the stern section of the wreck which is grown over with coral."

For four years Mr. Haskins pored over documents in the Archives of the Indies in Seville, in the Naval Museum in Madrid, in the British Museum, and in the Public Records Office in London.

"The more analysis I put into it," Mr. Webber says, "the more it struck me that maybe this was feasible and we should try it. Once I felt there was a sufficient package of research, I raised the money through an investment banker in Chicago, obtained an exclusive lease from the Dominican Republic government, and had an aerial mosaic map made of the entire dry reef [the 16-mile stretch of coral heads that are awash on the larger submerged reef, 41 miles long]. In 1977, I launched one of the most sophisticated expeditions ever to sail for Silver Shoals," as the area was named following Phips's fabulous haul.

Webber's handpicked team of specialists spent five months on the reef. They found 13 shipwrecks, plotted the sites, and turned them over to the Dominican Republic. But they did not find the Concepcion. What had seemed an almost failproof venture had turned sour.

"We were just baffled!" Mr. Webber says. "Why, with all the sophistication, planning, and preparation, hadn't this wreck come to light? In utter despair I would ask myself, 'Why haven't I succeeded?'"

In a philosophical aside, he muses: "That's what happens to too many people. They come up against hard times, frustrating disappointments, and then they quit. They resign themselves to the subjective attitude that they are a failure. And they aren't. They resign themselves to defeat and their whole life is miserable and they make their family miserable. I know what that is like, because I went through it. But I just wouldn't quit.I just think some people have to keep trying and try harder than others."

so back in chicago, Mr. Webber and his financial backers formed Seaquest International Inc. and, because of the excellent relationship the team had with the Dominican Republic, sent Mr. Haskins back to Spain to continue research of wrecks in those waters.

The big breakthrough came when Mr. Haskins met Victoria Stapells-Johnson, a young Canadian who was researching the Spanish side of the Concepcion story for Peter Earle, a professor of economic history at the University of London and the London School of Economics, who was writing a book about the 1641 fleet.

"We contacted Earle." Mr. Webber says. "We thought maybe, who knows, he might have that one little clue we didn't have that would solve the mystery . . . never realizing that he held the long-lost key -- the lot journal, the log of the ship Henry!"

He reaches in his briefcase and brings out a copy of the manuscript, written in the exquisite penmanship of the 1600s: "'The journal of our voyage intended by divine assistance in thebound for the Ambrosia Bank, ye north side of Hispaniola in company with the James and Mary, Captain William Phips, commander, both in pursuit of the Spanish wreck, in which search God be our guide, in the year 1686.'"

Phips had sent the Henry ahead to locate the reef and find the wreck. So his own ship, the James and Mary, which came to site later, was not there the day Concepcion was found. Its entries relate to salvaging the ship, not finding it.

"Everybody had the log of the James and Mary," Mr. Webber explains. It was the log of the Henry that had vanished from sight. It came to light in the private library of the English estate of Lord Rumney.

"When I read the Henry's log in England, I knew we had passed over the site in 1977," Mr. Webber says. "But because of the weak magnetic target the Concepcion represented, it was not detectable by our magnetometry system towed underwater by cable."

Simultaneously with this bonanza came a major technological boost. Varian Associataes in Canada, manufacturers of a magnetometer system for whom Mr. Webber had acted as consultant for years, came out with a new portable cesium magnetometer. By developing a housing for it that could be carried by a diver, Mr. Webber had in hand at last the final piece of the puzzle. With this device, he could dive to the bottom of the reef and sniff out even metal that was buried eight feet under sand and hidden behind encrusted coral.

"We raised another $450,000, went out to the reef again, and found the Concepcion in five days!"

From then on it was like Christmas every day. "Endless excitement," as silver coins; two exquisite gold chains believed to have been made in China; Ming Dynasty chinese porcelain cups, miraculously unbroken, that had crossed the Pacific via the Philippines and traveled across Mexico on muleback; and majolica ware were brought to the surface.

Since gold jewelry was not taxed in those days, opulent chains were worn by the wealthy. As the Concepcion exhibition points out, "many a shipwrecked victim may have been speeded to the bottom by his tax shelters."

For 11 months the excavation went on as 300 tons of coral were removed to get at the artifacts and silver currency. It was the finding of coins dated 1640 that confirmed beyond doubt that the Concepcion had at last been found.

Structurally, there was no wreck there. "We filled in the missing gap in history," Mr. Webber says. "Phips thought coral had grown over the stern and he could not gain access to the greatest treasure. It was only due to finding the ship over three centuries later that we realized the stern was never there. Five days after the ship sank, a terrible storm ripped the ship apart. The vessel separated amidship.The stern traveled through the reef, bouncing through coral heads for about 125 yards before it dumped and resettled in a coral canyon. That is what I found first, magnetically.That is what yielded the greatest amount of treasure we found, and the artifacts."

william P. Braker, director of the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, was instrumental in launching the relics from this spanish wreck on yet another odyssey -- a two-year tour of the US.

With Mr. Webber's full cooperation and assistance, Mr. Braker worked closely with the Dominican Republic in organizing the Concepcion's artifacts into an intriguing, artistically displayed exhibit that has already been seen by 215,000 schoolchildren and adults at the Shedd Aquarium and by more than half a million at the New England Aquarium in Boston, and has just opened at the Hershey Museum of American Life in Hershey, Pa., where it will remain on public view through July 31.

From there it will lift anchor once again and appear at the Museum of Science and Engineering in Tampa, Fla., through the end of 1981 before winding up its American tour at the Health and Science Museum in Dallas from Jan. 1 to Feb. 28, 1982. the artifacts will then go on permanent exhibition in the Dominican Republic.

An hour-long CBS TV documentary of the Burt Webber- Concepcion story in 1979 reached an estimated 19 million viewers. So these treasures from the deep are telling their story, opening many American eyes to details of life on Spanish galleons that add to the general understanding of that period of history.

For instance, one of the homely items found by the Webber team that gives a clue to the life style on transatlantic galleons is a wooden comb. Its coarse teeth on one end are for untangling snarls. Fine teeth on the other end are for removing lice!

At the bottom of a deep crevasse below eight feet of sand and chunks of coral , the remains of a chest gave up its secret: Under its false bottom a thick layer of silver coins, fused together by the alchemy of the sea -- a sample of the widespread smuggling that went on during that era. The Webber team also found fake coins, proof of the counterfeiting known to have been part of that period. It was in this chest that the 30 Ming cups were found, all but two of which were in perfect condition.

The wealth produced by Spanish mines in Central and South America and from natural products found there was the source of most of the hard money entering the 13 original colonies. Spanish silver largely financed the American Revolution. Now, after more than three centuries underwater, during which they have only increased in value, these particular Spanish coins are again finding their way back into the mainstream of economic life.

For 60 days, which began May 12 when the Concepcion treasures went on sale, Tiffany's has an exclusive contract with Seaquest International to market as many coins as the public will buy from its stores in New York; San Francisco; and Beverly Hills, Calif. After that, other merchants will be carrying them in fine stores across America until the supply is exhausted.

Dr. George Bass, president of the Institute of Nautical Archeology at College Station, texas, and a professor of anthropology at Texas A & M, takes a dim view of all commercial profit-taking from shipwrecks. his position is that only academically trained nautical archaeologists, a relatively new breed of student (his institute is only seven years old), should be allowed to excavate underwater wrecks.

Archaeologists regard sea sites as historical monuments, valuable, watery encyclopedias that accurately document the life styles of the past. Diving in the Mediterranean, he and his students have applied the exacting procedures of onlnad archaeology to document wrecks in scholarly journals.

But the spirit of adventure, discovery, and free enterprise, as the Burt Webber story proves, is very much alive. Diving for sunken treasure is going on in many parts of the world. Aided by new sensing devices, treasure-seekers can only be expected to increase in numbers.

Yet Dr. Bass says that Australia, Turkey, and Israel now strictly control treasure hunting in their waters. Within the last year, he reports, Mexico has set up a department to put underwater archaeology on a scientific footing. He believes that other countries in the Caribbean will eventually see the need to protect their underwater treasures.

Mr. Webber couldn't agree more that sunken artifacts should be preserved for posterity, as his treatment of the Concepcion artifacts shows. But he says there is a limit to the number of silver coins archaeology can usefully preserve. So long as a representative sample is saved for posterity, he sees nothing wrong with marketing Concepcion's mountain of silver coins.

Mr. Webber does not have academic degrees. But during his years of practical experience in deep-sea excavation he has gained a reputation for a meticulous, scientific approach to recovering treasures and has contributed to the development of new technology for finding them.

He is especially pleased that his recovery of Concepcion's navigational equipment includes three of about a dozen astrolabes and the only cross staff (two types of ancient navigational instruments) recovered so far from shipwrecks.

And, unlike some other treasure-seekers in this dangerous field, he accomplished his excavations without loss of life, with only minor injuries to his team, and without lawsuits.

What nettles him is that the academic world, including the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, so far has shown no interest whatever in his discoveries. He says he stands ready at any time to cooperate with nautical archaeologists who want to work with him on underwater projects.

What he hopes for now is that some scholar, looking for a likely topic for a master's degree or a doctoral thesis, will come forward and write the kind of scientific documentation taht he believes the treasures of the legendary Concepcion warrant.

In the meantime, he is planning new treasure-history hunts this summer in waters off the Dominican Republic -- with that government's enthusiastic collaboration.

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