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5 minutes with… A silver bar from a 17th-century shipwreck

When the Spanish galleon Atocha sank in a hurricane off the Florida Keys nearly 400 years ago, hope of recovering its cargo seemed lost. This silver ingot from our Important American Furniture sale was a remarkable survivor

‘On 6 September 1622, the treasure-laden Nuestra Señora de Atocha sank during a hurricane off the Florida Keys,’ explains Christie’s specialist Jill Waddell. ‘Two hundred and sixty lives were lost at sea, along with tons of gold and silver bound for Spain.’ Weighing 79 troy pounds — about 29.5 kg —  this bar of silver was marked with the name of a silversmith who also went down with the ship. 

A 79 troy pound silver bar recovered from the wreck of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha. Dated 1621. 5 in (12.7 cm) high, 15 in (38.1 cm) wide, 2 ¼ in (5.7 cm) deep; 79 lb t; 1 oz t; 2 dwt. Sold for $40,000 on 20 January 2017

A 79 troy pound silver bar recovered from the wreck of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha. Dated 1621. 5 in (12.7 cm) high, 15 in (38.1 cm) wide, 2 ¼ in (5.7 cm) deep; 79 lb t; 1 oz t; 2 dwt. Sold for $40,000 on 20 January 2017

At a time when colonial cities in North America such as Boston (1630) and New York (1624) had yet to be founded, the Spanish had already been developing New World centres including Potosí, Lima and Mexico City for more than 50 years. The continent’s mineral wealth became vital to the Spanish throne: from 1561 to 1748, two fleets carrying supplies were sent to colonists each year, returning to Spain filled with silver and gold.

‘The Atocha was so richly laden with treasures that it had taken two months to load, and it left port at Havana six weeks later than scheduled,’ continues Waddell. ‘It was the most heavily guarded ship in a fleet of 20, and was carrying clergymen, slaves and members of the Spanish nobility. When a hurricane struck, the boat was slammed into a reef, sinking in just 55 feet of water. Only five of those who had been on board survived.’

When news of the ship’s disappearance reached Havana, a second boat was sent out to search for it and recover lost cargo, but it, too, sank. It was not until the 1970s, almost 400 years later, that the boat was successfully traced by famed treasure hunter Mel Fisher — a former chicken farmer from Indiana. 

‘Having lain at the bottom of the ocean, this silver bar is perfectly preserved,’ says Waddell. The ‘V’ mark of its maker, the Atocha silvermaster Jacove de Vreder, remains clearly visible, signalling its authenticity. Also visible is the name of the shipper/owner M. Salgado, and marks indicating that this was the 498th bar to be founded at Bolivia’s Oruro mint. 

An indent at one end is what's known as the 'bite' of the mint's assayer, who would take a small section from each bar produced to determine the purity of the silver. Also visible is the fineness number 2380/2400 and three tax stamps. 

‘In actuality, it looks as though it has fallen off the moon,’ Waddell remarks. ‘It’s got this wonderful, deep-grey, craggy surface, and the marks remain deep and clearly legible. It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve handled in my career, and captures a remarkable moment in history.’