In a guarded compartment aboard the ship Odyssey Explorer, two men are hunkered over a table examining Civil War-era coins and marveling at their good fortune.
In front of them, stored in individual plastic sleeves, are a couple hundred gold and silver pieces hauled up earlier this month from the wreck of the S.S. Republic, a steamer that sank in the Atlantic Ocean off Savannah, Ga., in 1865.
To collectors, the coins could be worth several thousand dollars to $20,000 or $30,000 each.
Here's the good fortune part: There are more where they came from. A whole lot more.
Historical records indicate that the Republic sank with 20,000 gold pieces - worth between $120 million and $180 million today. Based on early excavation of the site, coin expert Donald Kagin says there could be close to 30,000 pieces down there. Either way, it will almost certainly turn out to be one of the richest shipwreck cargoes ever recovered.
High-resolution photos snapped by a remote-controlled underwater vehicle show a massive pile of coins that looks like something out of Pirates of the Caribbean.
"This is what we all dream about," said Mr. Kagin, an author and authority on U.S. coins who's been hired to catalog and preserve the treasure.
How much could it all be worth? Mr. Kagin and John Morris, the president of Tampa-based Odyssey Marine Exploration, say it's too early to tell. They're cautiously optimistic the booty could bump that $180 million mark.
"This is like predicting the presidential election at 9:00 in the morning," Mr. Morris said, looking up from a coin collector's price book. "We have a lot of indicators here that make it look really good, but there's a lot of work to do."
The discovery and salvaging of the Republic wreck, about 100 miles southeast of Savannah, is the culmination of more than a decade of searching by Mr. Morris and his partner, Greg Stemm. The 250-foot Odyssey Explorer was purchased and equipped with powerful computers and video equipment after the wreck was discovered in July.
The heart of the project is Zeus, a sophisticated "remotely operated vehicle" that acts as the crew's eyes and hands at the wreck site 1,700 feet below. Driven by a 250-horsepower motor, the 7-ton apparatus is equipped with fiber-optic video and still cameras, and has robotic arms that can handle the most delicate finds. A vacuum system lifts the coins and other artifacts into a container for transport to the surface.
"It's as good as being down there," said project archaeologist Neil C. Dobson. "In fact, it's even better because you can get so close. It's the nearest you can get to getting the archaeologist on site."
Mr. Dobson is among the crew of 42 - Mr. Stemm calls them "deep-sea cowboys" - manning the computers and cameras and methodically excavating the site, which is mostly contained in a 40-by-120-foot area. A National Geographic film crew is aboard chronicling their every move.
Since bringing up the first artifact - a glass bottle - from the wreck Aug. 4, the Odyssey Explorer crew has recovered about 1,750 coins and 300 other artifacts, including portholes and the ship's bell. It could take another three months or so to finish up.
In addition to the coins, the Republic was carrying 59 passengers, thousands of bottles of everything from pickled fruit to stomach bitters, and various other cargo. The 210-foot sidewheel steamer, once part of the Union fleet, was taking the money and supplies from New York to New Orleans for post-Civil War reconstruction of the South when it went down in a hurricane Oct. 25, 1865.
All passengers boarded life boats and got off alive, according to newspaper accounts, but the ship and its cargo settled on the sand at the bottom of the Atlantic, lost until Odyssey explorers detected it last summer after searching 1,500 square miles of ocean.
Because the wreck is so far out in international waters, Odyssey doesn't need a permit. It has, though, been granted federal "admiralty arrest" of the site to make it illegal for others to lay claim to it.
Zeus has snapped about 7,000 pictures of the wreck and debris field, allowing the assembly of a detailed overhead photo map of the site. On a computer screen, crew members can zoom in tight on specific artifacts in the wreck and send the vehicle directly to them for pickup.
"We're doing things that no government has ever done or no navy has ever done," Mr. Stemm said. "We're pushing the absolute limits of what you can do down there."
Founded in the mid-1990s, the publicly traded company made headlines last summer when it entered a historic partnership with the British government to excavate the wreck of the HMS Sussex, which sank in 1694 off Gibraltar while leading a British fleet into the Mediterranean Sea for a war against France and its leader, Louis XIV.
Historians say the 157-foot warship was carrying nine tons of gold coins aimed at buying the loyalty of the Duke of Savoy, a potential ally in southeastern France. The Sussex's cargo could be more valuable than the Republic's, but Odyssey will have to share it with England: The company will get 80 percent of the first $45 million and about 50 percent of the proceeds thereafter.
The Sussex project is on hold for now. There's treasure to be had closer to home first.
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