Tucker’s Cross: Gold and Swollen With Emeralds, This Was The World’s Most Valuable Sunken Treasure

by brian lam

Teddy is a descendant of Bermuda’s first governor, but he made his own fortunes by doing what so many have tried and failed at: Treasure hunting. He’s seen over a hundred wrecks around his home island and pioneered the technique of searching for wrecks by going up in a chair floated by a helium balloon and towed by a boat. Among all his research and diving work for places like National Geographic and The Explorer’s Club, his most notable find was that of a golden cross later named Tucker’s Cross, swollen with emeralds and found in shallow waters. In the 1950s, it was valued by the Smithsonian at $250k. That’s it above. Kinda.

Teddy grew up diving, scavenging coral to sell to tourists. He became a Royal Navy diver and when he returned back home after the war he started a salvage business that would sometimes be so slow they’d go fishing instead. One day, in 1950, Tucker and his partner spotted some cannons in the shallows, about 10 miles from the harbor. They raised them, and were going to sell them for scrap when the government offered them more for the cannons’ historical value.

It was only on visiting the site 5 years later did Tucker find the gold. Tucker’s own account is as follows:

Twice in five years I dived on the wreck, more out of curiosity than thoughts of gain. One day in the summer of 1955, with nothing better to do, I went down for another look, within minutes I uncovered a small, five-sided piece of gold. At that point my mild interest in treasure hunting changed. We set out the next day to see what other treasure the old ship held. The weather looked uncertain; I feared we might not be able to dive. I put on a full faced diving mask, which gets air through a rubber hose attached to an air compressor on deck, I leaped into the water. Patiently, lest I overlook something of value, I skimmed across the sandy bottom, which lay like a closed valley between walls of coral.

My aim that day was to clear away all obvious signs of a shipwreck so that if someone stumbled onto the site he would not recognize it as a shipwreck. I found three beautiful three-quarter inch gold buttons, each studded with three large pearls. Stuck to a few of the musket barrels and cannonballs were two hundred ancient Spanish and French coins. The most recent coin in the batch was dated 1592. With the hurricane season upon us we were running out of time. It was already late August and for several days we were shorebound. Soon the weather cleared, and we put in a third day on the bottom. Working slowly, I fanned my hands back and forth to create eddies, which washed the sand away from the spot where I found the original gold piece. A round gold ingot, nine times the size of the first, poked out of the sand. Clearly stamped on its surface was a royal Spanish tax stamp. Another full day’s work produced only a gold and pearl button. Again the weather soured. Winds from the northeast sent foaming white water crashing across the reefs around the old wreck. We were stuck ashore. Two days later the weather cleared. Anchoring over the old wreck, I leaped into the water and swam down into the coral-protected valley of sand and started fanning and after about ten minutes a shiny object emerged, then another. I uncovered a ten-and-a-half-inch-long, thirty-six-ounce bar of gold and one smaller piece. A few days later I put in a sixth day of diving and found another gold ingot.

By September 1955, and the weather was getting worse. Then on the seventh day, a Sunday, I found the greatest single object of all. Eager to work faster, I took a water hose down to the bottom and turned on the jet to blast sand from the area below the brain coral. After carving a deep hole I turned the jet off. When the debris settled, my eyes fell on a gold cross lying face down in the sand, I picked it up and turned it over. Awe struck, I counted the large green emeralds on its face. There were seven of them, each as big as a musket ball. From small rings on the arms of the cross hung tiny gold nails, representing the nails in Christ’s hands, and at the foot was the ring for a third, which had been lost. The carving while beautiful was somewhat crude, indicating that Indians made the cross. It remains my most treasured discovery.

From an colleague’s telling on Skin-Diver.com, things got really interesting after that. On land.

They had wanted to keep it a secret, but rumors were soon flying all over the island. A story soon appeared in a Bermuda newspaper, but the government, which they had feared might seize the treasure, remained silent. Having no idea of the intrinsic value of the find, Tucker contacted Mendel Peterson of the Smithsonian Institution and invited him to Bermuda to appraise the treasure. Peterson’s eyes almost popped out of his head when he saw their find. After several days of study, he evaluated the treasure and artifacts at $130,000 but subsequently raised the value to $250,000.

After Life magazine ran a feature article on the find, real trouble began. Every time the men went to sea they were followed by boats trying to pinpoint the wreck. A prowler attempted to break into Tucker’s house so he moved the treasure to a bank. Then the government decided the treasure was legally Bermuda’s because it had been discovered in territorial waters. After an angry meeting with the Colonial Secretary, who told him the government planned to confiscate the treasure, Tucker quickly retrieved it from the bank. That night he put it in a potato sack and hid it in an underwater cave.

The cross and other treasures eventually went to a museum that Tucker ran, with his wife, on behalf of the Bermuda government. Later he sold the museum to Bermuda for $100k, even though the cross alone was worth more.

Then, in 1975, right before Queen Elizabeth II was planning to visit the museum, word got out that the Cross had been stolen with only a replica left in its place, a sophisticated method the hallmark of international thieves at the times. The cross was, by this 1997 account, the most valuable single object pulled from a shipwreck.

It was never recovered.

*BerNews, Sports Illustrated, Tucker’s Website, Skin-Divers, Henry Tucker, Strobie on Flickr*

Facebook Comments