Considered the most valuable single object ever recovered from a shipwreck, Tucker’s Cross is an emerald studded, 22-carat gold cross. It was rescued by a noted diver and explorer Teddy Tucker from what is believed to be the wreck of the San Pedro, a Spanish treasure galleon sunk in 1594. In 1975 it was discovered that the cross had been stolen and a replica left in its place. The treasure, worth over $2 million in today’s money, remains lost.
Born in 1925 and the son of a prominent Virginian architect, Edward Bolton Tucker was raised in Bermuda, having been asked to leave several renowned private schools in the United States. Flamboyant and good-humoured, Tucker had little time for academia or convention, putting his faith in experience and his own sense of adventure and wonder. It is no surprise he would go on to not only gain a reputation as a maverick but also irritate maritime archaeological convention amongst those who disagreed with his methods and his lack of formal credentials. Through a keen family interest in the oceans, he began working at the Bermuda Aquarium pumping air for tourists. Tucker started to explore the sea off the island in the 1940s after seeing service in the Royal Navy as an underwater demolitions expert.
It was during this period after the war that Tucker is credited as having made a critical contribution to the economy of Bermuda, creating millions of dollars for the island through metal salvage from shipwrecks surrounding the island. The money generated for the treasury is said to have been more than all other international business and tourism combined. Carving out a reputation as one of the worlds preeminent divers and explorers, Tucker became widely known through films and magazines that featured his work, notably National Geographic. His finds, which covered over 100 shipwrecks off Bermuda, ranged from gold bars and silver coins to swivel guns and hand grenades. His exploits would bring him a Distinguished Service Award from the Underwater Society of America and the Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire medal. Yet, it was one rainy Sunday in September of 1955 that would yield his most famous, and some might say infamous, discovery — Tucker’s Cross.
“I picked it up, and the sun hit the emeralds, it was just like they had lights in them.” — Teddy Tucker.
Known as one of the earliest treasure recoveries of the modern age, the story of Tucker’s Cross truly begins in 1951 when Tucker, searching for lost fish traps, spotted cannon laying on the ocean floor at some 30 feet. Raising the finds and selling them to the government, Tucker would return to the site after completing other projects and in 1955. He would make the discovery of a lifetime. While no positive identification has ever been made of the site, it is believed to be the final resting place of the San Pedro.
Part of the famed Spanish Treasure Fleet, the ship is usually identified as the San Pedro making a voyage from Cartagena, Colombia, back to Cadiz under the command of Hieronimo de Porras. However, a second theory states that this is incorrect and confusion has arisen given the fact there were several ships with the name. The second theory believes that it is, in fact, more likely that the boat (also named San Pedro) sailed, in 1594, from Spain as part of an armada heading for Portobello under the Captaincy of Pedro Nunez de Bohorquez. Leaving the armada, the ship docked at Cartagena and was headed home when she was wrecked on the Bermuda coral reefs.
Working with Robert Canton, Tucker began to dig in the sand at the location around where he discovered the cannon and within minutes had uncovered a small piece of gold, turning what he described as a “mild interest” in treasure hunting into an obsession. Setting out again the next day and faced with unfavourable diving conditions, Tucker found three quarter inch gold buttons studded with pearls and two hundred silver coins that had become affixed to musket barrels and cannonballs. With the hurricane season approaching, time was of the essence, and on a third and fourth day of diving, the team recovered a gold ingot with a royal Spanish tax stamp clearly visible on the surface as well as another gold and pearl button.
The weather turning against them and a northeasterly wind sending water crashing across the reefs around the wreck, Tucker and Canton were stuck ashore, unable to carry out any further salvage of the site. Eager to press on and continue the already impressive haul of discovery, the team set out again after two days as soon as the weather cleared. The found a ten-and-a-half-inch-long, thirty-six-ounce bar of gold and a smaller piece, finding a second ingot on the sixth day. Yet they could scarcely have hoped that the best was yet to come.
“By September 1955, and the weather was getting worse. Then on the seventh day [of diving], 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.
Awestruck, 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 ornate carving, while beautiful, was somewhat crude, indicating that Indians had made the cross. It remains my most treasured discovery.” — Teddy Tucker, How I Found the Cross.
By the time the expedition was concluded, Tucker would add a bronze mortar and other treasures to his haul, but it was the cross that captured the world’s attention. Yet, like so much treasure, its history was from the magnificence of its appearance.
Considered the most beautiful emerald stones in the world, Colombian emeralds are synonymous with the country’s identity and bloody past. From around 500 AD and long before the conquest by the conquistadors, the Eastern Colombian Andes was inhabited by the native Muzo Peoples. Given the nickname “The Emerald People” on account of their extraction of the precious gems, they peeled emeralds from their formations using a combination of wood and water. The stones were used in jewellery and had significant cultural and religious significance, including in the famed El Dorado ceremony.
One legend of the Indians tells the tale of how the Fura and Tena cliffs of the Rio Minería valley came to be. It describes how two humans, the female Fura and the male Tena, were created by the god Are (also known as Ares) to populate the Earth and take care of the beauty he had created. In a tale with interesting parallels to the Abrahamic Adam and Eve creation story, Are commanded that Fura and Tena must always remain faithful to ensure their eternal youth. Despite many years living in paradise, Fura eventually disobeyed the command, and their youth and immortality were taken from them both. When they died (some legends say Tena killed Fura in his fury and committed suicide, some say that he killed himself alone) the god Are took “pity” on them and returned their immortality. They were resurrected and stand eternal as two cliffs. Inside their caves, Fura’s tears turned into emeralds.
Following the Spanish conquest of the New World, the conquistadors sought to find the source of the emeralds they had seen in Mexico. After fighting through the Colombian mountains toward Chivor, north of Bogotá, they had amassed over 7000 emeralds by 1537, opening their first mines. Yet this wasn’t enough. With expert knowledge of the terrain and through the use of poison arrows, the Muzo were an incredibly difficult foe for the well-armed Spaniards, resisting three attempts by the conquistadors to subdue them. Finally, in 1559, Luis Lanchero (who had been the first to enter Muzo territory twenty years previously and the first to be defeated) succeeded in quelling the Muzo. He founded the town of Villa de la Santísima Trinidad de los Muzos and enslaved the local population to work extracting the emeralds. The slavery of the local archaeological was coupled with a burgeoning slave trade into South America, the Spanish forces bringing African slave labour to be sold in the streets of their newly won cities. The church began converting the Indians to Christianity in 1566.
After its recovery, the cross was sent to the British Museum. The valuation placed it’s worth in the region of $200,000. Due to his loyalty to the island, Tucker would sell the cross and other items to the Bermuda government for half the British estimate, hoping that this would guarantee the treasure would remain in Bermuda. The acclaim afforded to him by his discoveries allowed Teddy and the cross to take centre-stage for the opening of the new Bermuda Maritime Museum, the opening of which was to be honoured by the attendance of Queen Elizabeth II.
The Queen, alongside Prince Philip, arrived in Bermuda on February 16 1975, the visit being the first leg of her Caribbean and Mexican tour of that year, being greeted by Governor Sir Edwin Leather, Premier Sir Edward Richards and a warm, welcoming crowd of thousands of Bermudians. The Royals visited schools, the national stadium, Hamilton’s City Hall and the official opening of the Bermuda Maritime Museum (now the Bermuda National Museum). However, the event was overshadowed by what is perhaps one of the least known significant heists of the last 50 years — Tucker’s Cross had been stolen.
Originally on display at the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum & Zoo where Teddy Tucker once worked, the cross was moved to the Maritime Museum where it was to be the focal point of a major exhibit. Shortly before the opening of the museum, Tucker intended to relocate the cross to a new display case, perhaps wishing to better show it off for his Royal visitor. He discovered that the cross was in fact missing, a plaster (some say plastic) replica having been substituted in its place sometime in the previous five years. Given the fact that the thief went to the extreme trouble of crafting a reproduction that had deceived for possibly some time, it was assumed that the robbery had been carried out by an experienced international art thief in conjunction with individuals with access to the museum. The Bermudian government believed the affair was an “inside job” and the presence of the Royal party on the island delayed full-scale investigations by the stretched Bermudian Police. Despite further inquiries by the FBI, Scotland Yard and Interpol no evidence was found to suggest any leads, and the cross vanished into thin air. The Smithsonian described the cross as “priceless” in the aftermath of the robbery.
“The main rule is that it’s not that hard to steal art, even from museums, but it’s almost impossible to translate that art into cash, criminals don’t understand that, because their knowledge of art crime is based on fiction and films” — Noah Charney, an expert on art theft.
The world of art theft is one that is rarely understood by thieves and yet one where they frequently go uncaught. The ability to sell a recognised piece of art or treasure, such as Tucker’s Cross, on the open market is zero, requiring the thieves to either have a purchaser already in place before the theft or require the breaking of the stolen material into constituent parts. Such investigators believed it was the case with the famed cross, feeling that the thieves melted the treasure down and sold the gold and emeralds separately on the black market for a fraction of its cultural value.
“We’re very bad at catching art thieves, we have a very low recovery and prosecution rate: Something like 1.5 per cent of cases of art theft see the art recovered and the criminal prosecuted… People assume that they’ll find criminal art collectors, when in fact, we have very few historical examples — maybe a dozen to 20 who fit the bill… There’s almost never been a criminal who knew about, or cared about, art.” — Noah Charney, an expert on art theft.
Whether Tucker’s Cross will ever be found is unknown. Perhaps the ingenuity of the theft might lead us to hope that the treasure was stolen professionally for a private collector and is still to this day behind a glass case in a luxury home somewhere in the world. The alternative is one of a fate that has unfortunately met many works of art and artefacts of value over the years — they have ended up broken down and sold for a relative pittance. From its beginnings as the likely product of slave labour in Colombia to a potential end in the hands of thieves and shady gold dealers, the story of Tucker’s Cross is only illuminated by the character of Teddy Tucker himself.
Passing away in 2014 at the age of 89, Tucker left a legacy not only on the world of maritime archaeology through his developmental work on the grid system of wreck exploration but also of marine biology. He discovered the six-gill shark and been one of the founding members of the Beebe Project in 1983, a project dedicated to the discovery and study of deep-sea animals. Having discovered over 100 wrecks surrounding Bermuda, his knowledge of diving and both maritime history and archaeology was said to be unparalleled.
While the loss of Tucker’s Cross is undoubtedly a tragedy, the legacy of Teddy Tucker was far grander than mere gold or even emeralds. It is one that will be seen for decades to come not only across the island of Bermuda but across the worlds of maritime archaeology, biology and diving, a legacy that transcends the mere notion of a treasure hunter or a maverick. In death, he was hailed as “a national treasure” to the island of Bermuda, Premier Michael Dunkley describing Tucker as “one of the great Bermudians of our time.” It is an assessment that can only go without argument.
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