Sunday, January 13, 2008

Apollo 12: A Robbins to treasure

A relic that combines the exploration of the New World
with the exploration of a new world.

In July of 1715, eleven ships of the annual Spanish Plate Fleet departed the anchorage in Havana Harbor and sailed from Cuba on the final leg of it's journey to Spain. The wealth of the Spanish Empire relied on the annual shipments of treasure that the plate fleets brought from the New World.

The "Combined Armada of 1715," loaded with silver and gold from the mines of Peru, Mexico and Columbia and artifacts from the gold and silversmiths in Cuba, sailed north to the east coast of Florida prior to the traverse across the Atlantic to Spain.

The trouble of manning the ships and bureaucratic delays postponed the sailing date until the start the hurricane season. The first week during the cruise up Florida's east coast was uneventful, but on July 31, 1715, the fleet was struck by a severe hurricane just east of Cape Canaveral. The wind drove the fleet ashore just south of the Cape with the loss of all the treasure galleons and most of their crews. After some small salvage attempts by the Spanish in the year following the disaster, the wrecks were lost for the next 250 years.

In the late 1950's, a beachcomber named Kip Wagner was walking the beach near Sebastian Inlet after a violent hurricane. During his walk, Kip spotted a bright object in sand at the water's edge. That bright object turned out to be a Spanish piece of eight. This small find resulted in the discovery of the missing shipwrecks of the 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet.

Kip salvaged the wrecks for gold and silver. Over the years, the result was the retrieval of more than a $1,000,000 in gold doubloons, silver pieces of eight, gold and silver ingots and jewelry.

The famous Indianapolis 500 race winner and Florida car dealer, Jim Rathman, later became involved with Kip Wagner and his group of divers. Together they formed the Doubloon Salvage Company.

As Jim stated in the above letter written in 2007, he supplied the astronauts with Chevrolet Corvettes during their time with NASA and made friends with several of the astronauts.

Since Apollo 7, the Apollo crews flew commemorative medallions made by The Robbins Company in Massachusetts. The coin designed by the crew and minted in silver was referred to as a "Robbins Medallion." The crews would take the medallions on their flights. They would present the medallions to family and friends as gifts and symbols of their flight into space.

The Apollo 12 crew was no different. Charles "Pete" Conrad, Richard Gordon and Alan Bean used their mission patch design for their mission's medallion. The mission patch design use was an Apollo crew standard at the time, but Pete Conrad wanted something unique for his mission's medallion. In early 1969, Jim Rathmann helped Pete procure a silver ingot from the 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet wrecks. The relationship between the space center's location and that of the wreck site on the shores of Cape Canaveral probably played a factor in Conrad's decision to include silver from the treasure fleet in the medallions.

Once Conrad procured an ingot from the treasure fleet wrecks, he sent it to the Robbins Company in Massachusetts. The Robbins Company has been designing and making these astronaut flown sterling silver medallions, since the initial request for a unique memento by the astronaut crew of Apollo 7.

When the silver ingot reached the The Robbins Company offices, they, in turn, forwarded the ingot to Handy Company in Connecticut for processing into a flat sheet of pure silver. Once again in possession of the silver sheet, Robbins stamped the first 82 medallions from the Spanish silver. The medallion shown above is number 49. Robbins made a total of 262 Apollo 12 medallions. The other 180 medallions were made from Sterling silver and numbered 83 through 262. The serial number and the word "Sterling" were stamped at the bottom of the reverse of the non-treasure medallions. All the 262 medallions flew to the Moon on the mission.

Normally, Robbins made the medallions out of Sterling silver and imprinted each medal with the word "Sterling." The treasure fleet silver was of a more pure melt, so Robbins did not use the "Sterling" imprint on those medallions.

The difference between the regular medallions and those of the treasure fleet can found by looking at the serial number located at the bottom of the reverse side of each medal as well as the word "Sterling" being omitted from the medallion.

The ingots were manufactured by the local minters in the New World. They made crudely sized ingot of pure silver at the mine sites for shipment to the central port of Havana, Cuba. The above photograph shows the finely finished Apollo 12 "treasure fleet" Robbins medallion with an ingot recovered from the 1715 Treasure Fleet wreck site off of Cape Canaveral in Florida.

In 2007, a reporter from the Robb Report contacted me about space collectibles for an article in the magazine. Sheila Gibson Stoodley came to my home to review the collection for some artifact of interest. Sheila felt that the combination of maritime and space histories made for a very unique anecdote about a space collectible. Her article appeared in the October 2007 edition of the Robb Report as shown above.

The Robb Report article tells the tale of the conquest of the "New World" along with the conquest of a new world. A fitting description for a unique piece of flown space memorabilia.

Photographs 2,3 and 4 are reproduced courtesy of the National Geographic Society, "Drowned Galleons Yield Spanish Gold" Kip Wagner, January, 1965.

Photograph 5 is reproduced courtesy of Farthest Reaches and Steven Hankow, "Jim Rathman Certification," Lawrence McGlynn, April, 2007

Photograph 9 is reproduced courtesy of the Robb Report, "One Last Thing..." Sheila Gibson Stoodley, October, 2007.

I also would like to thank Dick Gordon and Al Bean for answering my questions concerning the silver and the medallions.