The SS Central America's watery grave 160 miles off the South Carolina coast is indeed a golden one. Odyssey Marine Exploration last month explored the wreck of the ship, which went down in 1857 laden with so much gold that its sinking triggered a national financial panic, and the New York Times reports that the robot it sent to plumb the depths surfaced with quite the load: five gold bars clocking in at 66 pounds—or about $1.2 million. As for what remains, Odyssey thinks there could be as much as $85 million in riches underwater. But in this case, what's come before is just as notable, and intriguing, as Odyssey has an unexpected partner in its search: a court-appointed receiver.
The wreck was first explored in 1988 by a team backed by investors and led by Ohioan Thomas Thompson, who recovered what would today be worth $76 million in gold, about two tons all told. A wild legal battle followed after a range of claimants emerged from the woodwork, among them insurance companies who had paid out claims related to the gold more than 100 years prior. In 2000, Thompson was finally able to sell the portion of the gold he was left with, for a reported $52 million—and gave none of the windfall to his 251 investors. In 2012, Thompson skipped out on a court hearing; he and his female assistant vanished from their Florida mansion (leaving behind, among other things, a book on how to adopt a fresh identity) before he could be arrested. In May, Columbus lawyer Ira Kane was named receiver and instructed to recover what gold he could on the investors' behalf; he selected Odyssey to help him do so. Its Odyssey Explorer is now surveying the wreckage, and the Columbus Dispatch reports the entire operation could take as long as 150 days, with rotating crews working 24 hours a day during the recovery. (Odyssey managed to make a major discovery in 2013 involving silver.)