August 20, 2010 / 3:48 AM / 7 years ago

Gold bullion stolen from Florida treasure museum

3 Min Read

MIAMI (Reuters) - Thieves stole a $550,000 gold bar from a treasure museum where it went on display after a Florida salvager recovered it from the wreck of a Spanish galleon that lay on the ocean floor for centuries, the museum's executive director said.

The 74.85-ounce gold bar was stolen on Wednesday from the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, Florida, in what executive director Melissa Kendrick called "a very quiet smash and grab."

The 11-inch (28-centimeter) gold bar was inside a glass case with a small opening where visitors could stick a hand inside and lift the bar to examine it.

Footage from the museum's security camera clearly showed two culprits who made off with it, and the FBI and local police were investigating. The museum's insurer offered a $10,000 reward for its safe return, Kendrick said on Thursday.

Gold has hovered near historic highs after hitting a record $1,266.50 an ounce in June, but the stolen bar's $550,000 valuation reflects historic value far beyond its melt-down worth.

Mel Fisher, a Key West treasure hunter who died in 1998, recovered the bar in 1980 from the wreck of the Santa Margarita, a Spanish galleon that sank off the Florida Keys during a hurricane in 1622.

Kendall said the bar had several distinctive markings, including Roman numerals signifying it was 16-karat gold, a symbol identifying its owner, and a series of dots indicating what taxes the owner had paid to the Spanish crown.

"It's a one-of-a-kind piece," Kendall said.

The theft was the talk of Key West, an island town of 25,000 people at the southern tip of the Florida Keys.

Fisher and his crew found the wreck of the Santa Margarita while searching for its sister ship, the Nuestra Senora de Atocha.

The ships were part of a flotilla carrying gold, silver, emeralds and pearls from the colonial New World back to Spain.

Fisher and his crew found the Atocha's motherlode in 1985, hauling up one of the world's greatest sunken treasures of gold, silver bars and coins, as well as jewelry, gems and housewares owned by the sailors, soldiers, noblemen and clergy who perished when the ship sank.

Reporting by Jane Sutton, editing by Vicki Allen

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