BY STEPHEN HEMELT
THE DAILY IBERIAN
When friends Avery Munson and Gary Hebert discovered the sunken wreckage of a side-wheel steamship 60 miles off the coast of Cameron in July 1990, they had no idea it would take five boats, 16 years and numerous partners to actually recover the gold and silver coins that were inside the wreckage, which today could be worth more than $1 million.
With the help of Craig DeRouen and Gary’s wife, Renée Hebert, the group formed a company, Gentlemen of Fortune, in 2006 to legally claim the treasure. Renée, of Covington, is the only one of the four not from New Iberia.
Following a February 2007 maritime judge’s decision, the group today has ownership of more than hundred gold coins and a thousand silver coins, including some produced at two mostly forgotten U.S. mints.
The wreckage was located in 1990, but 99 percent of the coins were not found until 2006. The coins had been at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico since the SS New York sank in 1846. The steamship was making regular commercial runs between Galveston, Texas and New Orleans before a storm took the ship to the bottom, killing 17 of the 53 people aboard. The other 36 were rescued.
David Bowers, of New York-based Stack’s Rare Coins, said some of the individual coins could be worth $50,000 to $100,000 apiece.
“Some of these are in uncirculated or mint condition,” he said.
Donn Pearlman Inc. of Las Vegas, a communications planning and strategy assistance company, said the collection of coins could equal more than $1 million.
Of particular interest to coin experts — numismatists — are gold pieces known as quarter eagles and half eagles, which carried face values of $2.50 and $5, respectively, in the days before the United States printed paper currency.
Curator Douglas Mudd, of the American Numismatic Association’s Money Museum in Denver, said the treasure also includes $10 gold pieces, known as eagles, that were minted in Philadelphia and New Orleans.
Munson and Gary Hebert were on Gary’s sailboat, a 41-foot vessel named High Bid, in July 1990 when Gary spotted part of the New York’s wreckage. Munson had researched the ship’s history and knew its approximate location. Despite the knowledge, it took multiple dives before the group found signs of its resting place on the Gulf of Mexico floor.
After finding signs of the New York, Munson drank a celebratory beer on Gary’s boat. It was Munson’s first beer in two years. “One of many since,” Munson said with a laugh.
The first time Munson found any coins was in 1994, when he hauled off a total of five coins worth a grand total of $80. It would be 12 years before any more coins were found.
More trips to the wreckage were taken over the next several years before an errant boat smashed into the High Bid while it was tied off at the Sabine Pass fuel dock in 1997. The collision destroyed the sailboat.
At about the same time, DeRouen purchased a similar sailboat, named Double Knot Spy. Gary Hebert eventually bought a 40-foot former Maine lobster boat, named the Barracuda, which was more comfortable for overnight stays.
In 2000, Munson purchased a 1984-model 36-foot Navy survey boat named Imagine That. After numerous repairs, the Imagine That was fitted with a prop wash in 2005 that allowed the group to position itself over the wreckage and blow away sand and dirt that accumulated in the 159 years since the New York’s sinking.
It was in the summer of 2005 the group knew it was close to finally cataloging all that was left in the wreckage. However, salvage plans were stunted for a year when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita pummeled Louisiana’s coast in August and September 2005.
When the group returned in 2006, Renée Hebert and Munson were the first to locate coins.
“It was really exciting,” Hebert said. “After we came up on the buoy, Avery (Munson) said, ‘let’s keep it a secret.’ But before we could get all the way out of the water, he was telling the story.”
While still out in the Gulf, the group took steps to form a limited liability company, Gentlemen of Fortune, for the purpose of securing legal rights to the treasure claim.
According to Munson, all contents of the New York were under private ownership in 1846. When a direct line from that group could not be found in 2007, ownership of the New York transferred to Gentleman of Fortune. DeRouen said they received official ownership papers Feb. 1, 2007.
Later that year, Gary Hebert purchased a 65-foot steel research boat, dubbed Night Moves. The group’s last dive was in November 2007, when they celebrated on the deck of the Barracuda, sipping champagne.
Gary and Renée Hebert are in New York City today because Gary will appear live on Fox News Monday. Hebert will be interviewed by Shepard Smith about the treasure discovery, and the segment will air at 2 p.m. local time.
As for the financial rewards, DeRouen said the coins have been turned over to New Jersey marketer John Albanese.
“That has been entirely turned over to him,” DeRouen said. “I think his goal is certainly over the summer.”
Despite the realization that his treasure hunt ended in success, Munson still has a tough time believing it has worked out like it has.
“I’ve read of others and how their projects worked,” he said. “When you go through the ups and the downs, the victories and the defeats and the classic phases of a project, it’s unique and surreal when you do complete it.”
Needless to say, all four plan to continue their hobby of diving.
— The Associated Press contribited to this story.