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For Investors, All That Glitters May Not Be Gold

September 11, 1985

MIAMI (AP) _ Jim Lindsey’s garage needed a new roof and his kitchen stove should have been replaced years ago, but the Taylorville, Ill., coal miner decided to put $1,000 of savings into a treasure hunting expedition.

Jim Vonderhaar is a handyman from Cincinnati. He sold his business, put off buying a home, good car or new clothes for 14 years for a chance to invest thousands of dollars in Key West salvager Mel Fisher’s ventures.

Neither man says he has been disappointed.

On July 20, Fisher announced he had discovered the mother lode of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a 550-ton flagship of a Spanish treasure fleet that sank in a hurricane in 1622.

The ship was buried beneath four feet of sand and 53 feet of ocean, about 40 miles west of Key West. Nearby, Fisher’s divers reported finding gold bars, silver bullion, bejeweled artifacts and treasure chests crammed with silver coins.

Bleth McHaley, vice president of Fisher’s Treasure Salvors Inc., says investors such as Lindsey and Vonderhaar are going to be worth ″a lot of money.″

It is anyone’s guess, however, exactly how much they’ll share with hundreds of others who bought into Fisher’s search for the Atocha.

″It depends on what is totally recovered,″ Ms. McHaley said in a recent interview. ″Everybody will get something.″

Fisher, 63, originally estimated the treasure’s worth at around $400 million. Ms. McHaley said $238 million might be closer to the mark.

So far, 900 silver bars and an undetermined number of gold and silver coins have been recovered, she said.

Norman Stack of Stack’s Rare Coins in New York City cautions, ″The more coins they find, the less they may be worth. The coin business is based on supply and demand.″

All investors will receive treasure, not cash. The small investor - most of whom were in a limited, one-year partnership - is likely to receive coins. The larger investors will get some of the more precious elements of the booty, according to Ms. McHaley.

The treasure will be distributed through a system in which every coin, gold and silver bar or trinket will be assigned a point value.

It will take two years or more before all the treasure is recovered, cleaned and documented, Ms. McHaley said. She said a new lab will have to be built, and divers may be unable to work during parts of the Atlantic hurricane season from July 1 to Nov. 30.

Carl Paffendorf, president of the Glen Cove, N.Y., investment company of Vanguard Ventures Inc., said he’s glad he bought into the Atocha deal, but wouldn’t recommend such a risky investment to the general public.

″This type of investment is for one who can afford to lose money. If it hits - great, if not, then you still had a piece of the action,″ he said.

″This is out of the category of venture and into the category of adventure.″

In 1980, when the galleon Santa Margarita was located off Key West, Paffendorf and a syndicate of 34 other investors each committed $150,000 in exchange for a 10 percent permanent share of treasure from the Atocha and the Margarita, which also went down in the 1622 hurricane.

Paffendorf said he expects to make more than $20 million for his investors. So far, he said, he has $4.5 million in treasure locked up in a New York bank vault.

The majority of Fisher’s investors, though, are involved in the limited partnership put together by Jerome Burke of Underhill Associates in Red Bank, N.J. Investors get whatever is recovered in a particular year, and Fisher gets help with his estimated $1 million annual expenses.

In 1980, a limited partnership unit at $20,000 yielded $118,000 in treasure from the Margarita, Burke said. Last year, when not much treasure was found, an investment in a $1,000 unit got a couple of silver coins. This year, Burke promises, will be a banner year.

In Fisher’s leaner days, he often scrounged for money and sometimes couldn’t meet payrolls.

In 1969, he sealed a $9,000 deal for a 5 percent interest in the Atocha on the back of a cocktail napkin.

Sherry Culpepper, who works in Fisher’s museum gift shop and said she has sold many limited partnership shares to tourists, said most small-time investors weren’t interested in getting rich.

Lindsey said he fits into that category, even though he had to do without a new stove or garage roof when he invested $1,000.

″I just wanted a piece of history,″ he said. ″It’s great that something from a ship that sailed 130 years after Columbus will make it to Taylorville and my house.″

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