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Treasure Coins Struck
By Dr. Kerry Rodgers, World Coin News
October 15, 2013

This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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Recovered treasure has made its way into new British coins. While the silver was always destined for the British Royal Mint, it took a seven-decade detour.

Just after midnight on Feb. 17, 1941, the German submarine U-101 torpedoed British merchantman S.S. Gairsoppa 300 miles off the coast of southern Ireland. The ship sank within 20 minutes. All but one of the crew were lost. With them went seven million ounces of silver worth about $160 million today.

In September 2011 Odyssey Marine Exploration located the sunken wreck in water three miles deep. That put it half a mile deeper than the Titanic. Odyssey then set about the deepest and largest recovery of bullion from any shipwreck in history.

Some of that silver has finally made its way to its intended destination, The British Royal Mint has struck into quarter ounce .999 fine silver 50-pence coins edged with the name “SS Gairsoppa.”

The tragedy of S.S. Gairsoppa began in December 1940 when The Royal Mint stocks of silver were badly depleted. Two hundred tons of bullion were ordered from India. These were dispatched aboard the 5,200 ton S.S. Gairsoppa already loaded with 7,000 tons of general cargo, pig iron and essential tea. The ship joined a series of naval convoys heading for Britain. The last left Freetown, Sierra Leone, in January 1941.

The convoy was struck by a heavy storm off the Irish coast. As the Gairsoppa was running short of coal it had no option but to break away and head for Galway Harbor. Alone she made an easy target for any German U-boat.

She was spotted by a long-range German Focke-Wulf Fw-200 on the evening of Feb. 16. Some 14 hours later Kriegsmarine VIIB-class submarine U-101 commanded by Korvettenkapitän Ernst Mengersen fired four torpedoes at her. One exploded in her No. 2 hold toppling the foremast that carried the main and emergency radio aerials and preventing any distress signal being transmitted. She sank in 20 minutes.

Two, possibly three boats got away in a heavy swell while under machine gun fire from the submarine. Thirteen days after abandoning ship just three European and four Indian seamen remained alive in the bitter Atlantic conditions. The Lizard was sighted and an attempt made to land. The boats were spotted by children who summoned a nearby lifeboat. Only Richard Ayres was rescued alive although unconscious in the surf. All told 84 perished.

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The wartime value of sunken silver was significant. The impact of its loss echoed through the British government. Contemporary correspondence between the Royal Mint and the Bank of England indicates that a suspension in coin production was considered within two months of the sinking as supplies ran low.

Post-war the silver proved a magnet for treasure seekers from around the globe. It was Odyssey Marine that struck it rich.

The firm commenced recovery operations in mid-2012. On July 18 they announced they had hauled-up some 48 tons of silver, or 1.4 million ounces, from the site. In 2013 they recovered a further 61 tons (1.8 million ounces) for a total to date of 110 tons made up of 2,792 ingots.

It is still unclear how much of the silver was in ingots and how much, if any, was in specie, but it has become the largest and heaviest recovery of precious metal from any shipwreck in history.

The Royal Mint has chosen to use some of the silver to strike the quarter-ounce .999 fine Britannia 50-pence coins using Philip Nathan’s windswept Britannia looking out to sea. Shane Bissett, the Royal Mint’s Director of Bullion, said, “The perfect image for the coins struck from S.S. Gairsoppa’s long-lost cargo.” … “We are so pleased to be able to finally bring these coins to market, albeit more than 70 years later than expected.”

In the UK the coins can be purchased from the Royal Mint: www.royalmint.com. Outside the UK they are available from precious metals dealer A-Mark Precious Metals, Inc. through their distributor Merit Gold & Silver: http://www.meritgold.com. Final mintage will be between 500,000 and 1 million pieces.

Details of the wreck and its recovery can be found at Odyssey’s website at http://shipwreck.net/ssgairsoppa.php.

Images courtesy (from top) Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc., Gizmodo.com and The Royal Mint.

 

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