Capturing the Excitement of Lost and Found Coin Treasures

Q. David Bowers, Lost and Found Coin Hoards and Treasures. 2nd edition, Whitman Publishing, Atlanta (GE), 2019. Hardcover, 480 pages, full color, 8.5 x 11 inches. ISBN: 0794846440. $39.95.
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In the summer of 2014 at Whitman Publishing we started planning a new book by Q. David Bowers. I remember talking with our editorial team about the project. Its foundation would be several decades’ worth of Bowers’s research on American coin treasures and hoards. His information-gathering had started in the 1950s when he was a young man just beginning what would become a lifelong career as a numismatist and historian. Over the years and decades Dave would write about coin hoards and treasures in numerous columns, articles, auction catalogs, books, and elsewhere. His first book devoted entirely to the subject was published in 1997. These 50-plus years of research would form the basis of a new, bigger, updated volume that we planned to publish in 2015.

Imagine you’re out walking your dog and you stumble across buried cans holding thousands of dollars’ face value in old gold coins. That happened to a couple in California in 2013. Photo courtesy of David McCarthy, Kagin’s.

“Lost and Found Coin Hoards and Treasures” included some two dozen significant updates to earlier published essays, with new research and sales information, plus recent discoveries from the past ten to fifteen years and, notably, a dramatic update to the story of the sunken SS Central America. The latter was and is one of Dave’s greatest numismatic obsessions. For many years, since I became publisher at Whitman in 2004, I’d heard him extol the genius and hard work required to find the amazing shipwreck and bring its gold and silver to the surface. “No larger Gold Rush-era treasure was ever lost,” he would say, “so by definition no greater American treasure can ever be found!” I was delighted that he would be able to update the story with exciting news of the ship’s latest (2014) exploration and additional recoveries from the wreck site.

In his manuscript, Dave shared his ongoing research and added many modern-day discoveries, showing that treasure isn’t just in children’s tales and pirate stories. The SS North Carolina, lost in July 1840 off the coast of South Carolina with a treasure of silver and gold coins, was found in the year 2000. The SS Republic, shipwrecked in a hurricane in October 1865 off the Georgia coast, was found in 2003 with its load of silver and gold coins. The side-wheel steamship SS New York, swamped in 1846 in a “perfect gale” off the coast of Texas, was located in 2005. Back on dry land, Dave shared Ron Gillio’s personal recollection of the Wells Fargo Hoard of nearly 20,000 (!) 1908 No Motto double eagles. In 2013 the Saddle Ridge Hoard of gold coins was discovered – almost $28,000 in face value alone – buried in eight metal cans in California around 1894, and appraised at $10 million. In 2015 the Stack’s West 57th Street Hoard came to light: more than a million coins, weighing some 60,000 pounds and including sacks of tens of thousands of large cents, bag quantities of Barber silver coins, ten thousand 1909 V.D.B cents, and many others. That same year the Massachusetts State House time capsule was exhumed, after being hidden in 1795 with a cache of coins and opened and resealed in 1855 with the addition of more coins.

After describing hundreds of discovered hoards and treasures, and illustrating that such finds are still happening today, Dave offered two more tantalizing chapters, “Undiscovered Treasures on Land” and “Unrecovered Sunken Treasures.” Hundreds of tidbits, clues, and rumors, laid out state by state, offer more possibilities to set a treasure-hunter’s heart and mind racing.

In the annually issued Guide Book of United States Coins (the hobby’s popular “Red Book”), the sections on famous hoards and sunken treasure always rank high among readers’ favorites.

Creating a Book About Coins and People

By the time we started work on “Lost and Found Coin Hoards and Treasures” in 2014, I had overseen the publication of nearly 30 books by Dave Bowers. That averaged to about three books per year, not counting his editorship of the Guide Book of United States Coins, putting him firmly in the ranks of the most prolific American historians. Many of these books were updated in multiple editions over the years – a good measure of their popularity.

Dave’s process for building the “Lost and Found” manuscript was in classic Bowers style: drawing on a lifetime of carefully gathered and organized research; seeking insight and information from experts and specialists; striving always for numismatic accuracy and detail; and telling good stories and telling them well. Add to that approach a near-photographic memory and the wits and knowledge to make a hundred mental connections where most people would make one or two. And fold in Dave’s ability to see American and world history in both a big-picture view and in homey, local, very personal context. This was the recipe that created his wonderfully unique exploration of a fascinating subject.

“Lost and Found Coin Hoards and Treasures” is a book about coins, but on a deeper level it’s a book about people. Some of the personalities Dave introduced were quirky, like coin hoarder Alexander Miller, who lived in a tiny town in Vermont, rarely spoke with the outside world, and also collected airplane parts and vintage cars. Some were courageous, like Captain William Lewis Herndon, who went down with the hurricane-stricken Central America after evacuating the ship’s women and children.

Perhaps most appealingly, “Lost and Found” is about the people who find the hidden hoards and treasures, whether they’re farmers digging in the earth, adventurous boys exploring a basement, metal-detectorists sweeping a potato field, or scientists calculating the precise location of a sunken shipwreck. The gold and silver are out there waiting to be found, by accident or by design. The finders could be any of us, if we’re lucky or smart, or both. That’s the excitement that Dave taps into and fuels with his storytelling.

“Forgotten Colorado Silver” includes a chapter on a rumored hoard of silver Lesher Referendum Dollars. If the hoard exists, it would be a million-dollar find.

“A Treasure Trove of Colorful and Fun Facts”

The “Sage of Wolfeboro” wrapped up nearly all his text manuscript and gathered its accompanying images by the end of 2014. All that remained to be finished was the updated section on the SS Central America, which was still being reviewed and fine-tuned by various experts. (As I told our editorial staff at the time, “The Central America is an active shipwreck site, so there are teams of people involved,” and it took time to ensure the story was told correctly.) Bob Evans, chief scientist and historian of the recovery of the Central America, wrote a foreword for the new book, as did Kenneth Bressett, longtime editor of the Guide Book of United States Coins.

More than 600 photographs, engravings, drawings, maps, coin images, and other illustrations made the new book visually as colorful as its narrative. (A review in the journal of the American Numismatic Society would describe the images as “eye candy.”)

The book debuted in October 2015 and was an immediate success. Numismatist Mike Thorne, in Coins Magazine, May 2016, “merely scratched the surface” (his words) in his full-page review of the book, calling it “a magnificent effort” and stating that “this volume belongs in the library of any coin collector who likes to dream about finding a great hoard.” California Bookwatch’s “Antiques/Collectibles Shelf” called it “a treasure trove of colorful and fun facts … accessible to coin collectors and adventure readers alike.” Midwest Book Review, which makes recommendations to libraries and others, called it “an absolutely fascinating and profusely illustrated read from beginning to end,” “impressively well researched, written, organized, and presented,” and “very highly recommended for personal, community, and academic library collections.”

By 2018, after a good print run, the first edition was sold out of our inventory and we started to plan a second edition – the book now available – for publication in 2019.

The latest edition has more than 50 new photographs, and numerous updates to its essays. Ongoing research and consultation with specialists have led to some significant revisions and additions. From Forgotten Colorado Silver: Joseph Lesher’s Defiant Coins (2017) came Robert D. Leonard Jr.’s and Kenneth Hallenbeck’s discussion of a rumored hoard of Lesher Referendum Dollars. John M. Kleeberg recommended the removal of Missouri’s Wilson Tilley treasure from the chapter on “Hoaxes, Fantasies, and Questioned Finds,” pointing to evidence of its very real existence. Other essays were updated with recent findings. In the meantime, research is ongoing, and newly discovered hoards and treasures – such as that of the steam-packet Pulaski, lost in a maritime disaster in 1838 and brought to light in 2018 and 2019 – will undoubtedly be added to future editions.

After all, the coins are out there. They just need to be found and reported … and then they make history.


You can order the book directly at the publisher’s website.

For more information, visit the Whitman website.

In another CoinsWeekly article, Dennis Tucker takes the readers on a journey through time and presents the Tribute Edition of the Red Book.