“Tumbaga wreck,” sunk ca. 1528 off Grand Bahama Island
Before there were coins, before there were Spanish Treasure Fleets, and even before there were any kind of colonies in the Spanish Main, the conquistador Hernán Cortés and his men discovered treasure in the form of native-American gold and silver artifacts. While it is a shame that these artifacts no longer exist, at least their one-time presence is confirmed by what have become known as "tumbaga" bars: a group of over 200 silver and gold ingots discovered in the remains of an unidentified ca.-1528 shipwreck off Grand Bahama Island. The artifacts that composed these bars were apparently lumped together in two piles—one for gold-colored artifacts and the other for silver-colored artifacts—with great amounts of impurities (predominantly copper) in each pile. The piles were then melted as much as possible (not thoroughly) and poured into crude molds that in some cases were no more than depressions in the sand. The resulting ingots, called "tumbaga" bars, were then stamped with four types of markings:
1. Assayer, many in the form of BV with "~" over the B and "o" over the V, possibly signifying Bernardino Vasquez, one of Cortés' fellow conquistadors.
2. Fineness, marked in Roman numerals as a percentage of 2400.
3. Serial number, usually in the form of the letter R followed by Roman numerals.
4. Tax stamp, part of a circular seal whose legend (pieced together) reads CAROLVS QVINTVS IMPERATOR for Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire.
In 1995 we had the great fortune to be offered 133 silver bars from this wreck, which divers had excavated in 1992. These 133 silver bars represented a corner on the market, as the rest of the bars found (including all the gold bars) were either sold at auction or doled out to company officials and contractors well before we made our large purchase.
Each bar is described in detail in the 1993 book Tumbaga Silver for Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, by Douglas Armstrong, a professional conservator hired by the salvage company to clean and preserve all the silver "tumbaga" bars.
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