Cigars from 165-year-old ‘Ship of Gold’ wreck go under the hammer

A stash of 165-year-old Cuban cigars salvaged from the wreck of the “Ship of Gold” are to go under the hammer this weekend — and, remarkably, they could still be smoked. The SS Central America sank in 1857 after being struck by a Category 2 hurricane during a voyage from Panama to New York, via Havana, claiming the lives of 425 of her 578 passengers and crew. Her wreck lies at a depth of 7,200 feet off of the coast of North Carolina. 

She went down carrying a shipment of gold so large — worth, in fact, a whopping £633million in today’s money — that its loss contributed to the US’s financial “Panic of 1857”.

While some of the recovered gold has already been sold, now the wreck’s other treasures, including the cigars and a daguerreotype photograph of a young woman dubbed the “Mona Lisa of the Depths”, are headed to auction.

The cigars were recovered back in 1991 from the sunken trunk of one of the SS Central America’s first-class passengers — one John Dement, a merchant, miner and military veteran from Oregon City, who actually survived the disaster.

According to Fred Holabird — the president of auction host Holabird Western Americana Collections — Mr Dement would have acquired his cigars when the SS Central America called into port at Cuba.

He said: “Thirty-seven Cuban cigars, apparently bought on board when the ship stopped in Havana on the voyage from Panama to New York, were found in a passenger’s trunk.

“Some of their wrappers are still in excellent condition. This is the first time these vintage cigars are being offered.”

According to Dwight Manley of treasure consignor the California Gold Marketing Group, the cigars might even still be smoked.

He said: “Tommy Thompson, who discovered the wreck, said he and surely another could rehumidify the cigars and make them smokable.

“Imagine having a Havana-rolled cigar made when Abraham Lincoln was a senator!”

The majority of the cigars are set to be sold in lots of two — and with no reserve in play, it remains to be seen what collectors will pay to secure them.

Mr Holabird added: “They are from the biggest gold treasure in history, so there is no telling.”

Bob Evans, the SS Central America Project’s chief scientist, said: “The cigars are a true wonder, no doubt, and it is quite counterintuitive that they would survive 134 years in the deep sea — a real curiosity.

“It is cold on the SS Central America shipwreck site — a very consistent 37F.

“It is an environment with no light, high saline content, and around 3,2000 pounds of pressure per square inch.

“Essentially, it is a dark, high-pressure, salty, deep-sea refrigerator.”

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Mr Evans continued: “The passengers’ trunks found in the debris field around the main shipwreck site were not breached or opened — and although not watertight, the leather shell of the trunks limited water circulation.

“Soon after sinking, all the oxygen was used up, and anaerobic conditions prevailed for most of the years before two trunks were recovered, including Mr Dement’s.

“When we opened the Dement trunk, we saw a few dozen cigars that had been placed on top of clothes and other items.

“Soggy and limp, the cigars were carefully placed on a fibreglass screen and slowly freeze-dried over the next few months to preserve them.”

The now-dried cigars will be sold at auction in Reno, Nevada, on March 4 and 5.

Additional reporting by Michael Havis

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