For decades, one of the most popular exhibits at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West was "lift a gold bar." Until eight years ago — when two men lifted it. As in stole it.
The case was cold until last fall, when law enforcement officers received an anonymous tip that led them to two suspects. They were charged in federal court in January with conspiracy against the United States and theft of a major artwork.
Richard Johnson, of Rio Lindo, Calif., pleaded guilty in April. He’s the one who actually broke a piece off the case and slipped the gold bar into his pocket. Last week, his co-defendant Jarred Goldman, 32, of Palm Beach Gardens, was convicted of the same charges after a two-day trial.
Both are scheduled for sentencing in July. The two charges carry a maximum sentence of 15 years.
Corey Malcom, the museum’s director of archaeology, was the state’s final witness at Goldman’s trial.
He said the museum is still feeling the loss of the gold bar, which was recovered in 1980 by treasure hunter Mel Fisher from the Santa Margarita, a Spanish galleon that sank in a 1622 hurricane off the Lower Keys. It was part of the same treasure fleet as the Nuestra Señora de Atocha.
“People loved it,” Malcom said of the gold bar. Visitors still come to the museum wanting to touch and lift the bar, he said.
“They don’t know that it’s gone. And they’re heartbroken because they remember it from years ago and it had such an impact on them,” he said. “And that’s such a loss because it seems sort of cheesy, you know, lift a gold bar ... but it gave people a really powerful, tangible way of just feeling the heft of history.”
Since the arrest, Malcom has seen one small piece of the bar, which the FBI recovered. Judging from that piece, he believes the bar was split down the middle, lengthwise and then chopped up laterally into bits — probably about 30 pieces.
The museum has no current plans to display that one remaining piece.
“I guess, technically, it belongs to the insurance company. They paid the claim on it,” Malcom said. “Now what they want to do with it, I don’t know. I hope they’ll donate it back to us as a tax write-off.”
Malcom said the insurance claim on the 10-inch long bar was $100,000. But that’s not the value he places on it.
“The only answer you’re going to get out of me is ‘priceless.’ Because there are just not a lot of these things around. We just have about half a dozen in our collection. They’re not making any more of them,” he said. “So once something that rare and special is gone, it’s a blow you can’t calculate.”
Malcom said he isn’t sure why so many people are fascinated with treasure — the gold, silver and emeralds that made Mel Fisher famous and are displayed in the museum.
“Gold just makes people nuts. I don’t know why,” he said. “I’m more interested in some of the other things from the shipwrecks.”
More prosaic items are also part of the museum’s displays. Malcom said it’s those artifacts that really connect us with the past.
“They just give this powerful, physical, tangible real connection to something that seems so distant otherwise. You can read words about a galleon but to actually see the things from a galleon and know that they were made hundreds of years ago, have this long strange life underwater for centuries and now they’re back in front of you again, is I think just such a powerful way for people to understand the past. It makes the past real.”
Malcom said the museum has no plans to install a new “lift a gold bar” exhibit. For one thing, the rest of the gold bars in its collection are softer than the original piece that was used.
Now the museum is focusing on new programs and planning for the upcoming 400th anniversary of the sinking of the treasure fleet that made Mel Fisher famous.
“What we want here is for our visitors to understand these ships in their entirety. A galleon wasn’t just about gold bars and silver bars. It was about a whole bunch of people doing business and living their lives and existing 400 years ago,” he said. That means looking at all the parts of the ship.
“So we look of course at the treasure they were carrying but we look at the dishes they were eating off of. We look at the tools they were using. We have pins and combs and you know, just all these things that really speak to people,” he said. “That’s really what it comes down to is who were these people? How were they living and what were they doing? And those artifacts, that broad, broad array of artifacts, can tell us much more completely how that was — rather than just looking at coins or something.”