October 2004

Met Seeks Sunken Treasure

Loaded with gold, silver and emeralds, the Spanish galleon Nuestra Se̱ora de Atocha sank in shallow water during a hurricane off the Florida Keys in 1622. Two years later, another storm buried the wreck. The treasure sat at the bottom of the ocean for almost three and a half centuries РРuntil salvage expert Mel Fisher found it in 1971. He and a team of divers dredged up an estimated $400 million worth of cargo.

About 15 of the finest silver objects salvaged from the Atocha will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of “The Colonial Andes: Tapestries and Silverwork, 1530 – 1830,” on view through December 12. The Atocha treasures are on loan from the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, Florida, which Fisher, who died in 1998, established with $20 million worth of historical objects.

Fisher’s discovery of the trove led to years of legal wrangling over who rightfully owned it. In a deal reached with the state of Florida, Fisher kept 75 percent of the treasure, and 25 percent went to the state. In addition to donating pieces to the museum, Fisher sold others on the open market.

Johanna Hecht, the Metropolitan’s associate curator of European sculpture and decorative arts, who cocurated the show, says she hasn’t been able to find those objects. “I’m hoping the publicity about the show will flush some of them from the woodwork,” she says.

Salt water is tough on silver, posing challenges for museum conservators. Sunken gold fares much better.

One of the exhibition’s themes is the mix of indigenous artistic traditions with Spanish styles and how these mutated into a colonial offshoot of the Spanish Baroque. A pair of Inca ritual vessels embodies this amalgam of Inca craftsmanship with Spanish Baroque style, Hecht says. The vessels, traditionally crafted in wood, are here elaborately worked in silver, giving them a Spanish look.

The old galleon may yet yield more treasures. “Most of the pieces were rescued in the 1980s, but divers are still searching,” says Hecht.

– -Roger Atwood