Sotheby’s selling rare emerald lost at sea for 400 years

Sotheby's New York are set to auction a rare Muzo emerald that was salvaged from a shipwrecked galleon lost at sea four centuries ago. The proceeds will go to benefit humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. Here's all you need to know about the jewel's fascinating backstory

30 November 2022

By Kim Parker

An American heiress and millionaire. A long-lost emerald. And a fabled shipwreck that took place off the coast of Florida four centuries ago. These might sound like plot-spoilers plucked from a Hollywood adventure movie, but they are actually real-life facts taken straight from the history books. On 7th December 2022, as part of its Magnificent Jewels sale, Sotheby’s New York is set to auction the 6.25 carat, step-cut emerald engagement ring that once belonged to Mitzi Perdue, a hotel heiress and widow of millionaire chicken producer Frank Purdue. The sale is expected to raise between US$50,000-70,000 (roughly £42,000-£58,000) to benefit the fight against human trafficking in Ukraine.

Mitzi and Frank Purdue
Frank and Mitzi Purdue, the latter wearing her emerald engagement ring. Photo courtesy Mitzi Purdue / Sotheby’s.

But this is no ordinary emerald. The sparkling jewel was part of a horde recovered from the fabled shipwreck of the Atocha, a Spanish treasure galleon lost at sea during a hurricane in the Florida Keys in 1622. And now, 400 years after it was first lost, Mitzi Purdue is sharing the emerald’s incredible backstory with the world, in order to raise awareness, as well as bids, for a charitable cause.

The Nuestra Señora de Atocha was a galleon commissioned by the Casa de Contractación, a Spanish government agency which attempted to regulate Spanish exploration and colonisation efforts in the 17th century. In March 1622, she set sail as part of the Tierra Firma fleet from Spain to the West Indies. In Cartagena, Colombia and Panama, the galleon was loaded with the belongings of noble families and other passengers making the return journey to Spain with the armada. So rich was the haul of gold, copper, silver, tobacco, indigo and Colombian emeralds, that it reportedly took two months to record and load it all on board (modern estimates have put the value of its treasure somewhere between US$250 million and $500 million).

Spanish galleons in battle
Engraving depicting, Spanish treasure galleons attacked by English pirates, circa 1580. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Heavily-laden treasure galleons such as the Atocha represented a prime target for English and Dutch fleets, as well as pirates, so were armed to defend themselves in battle. But having been delayed in Panama, the Atocha and a convoy of 27 other ships set sail for Spain from Havana on 4th September, 1622 – right in the middle of hurricane season, from which only good fortune could protect any vessel.

The Atocha and one of her accompanying galleons, the Santa Margarita, made it as far as the Florida Keys before they were overtaken by a vicious squall and sank along the reefs. In total, eight of the convoy of 28 ships were lost during the storm. The Aotcha’s 265 passengers and crew were all killed, save for just five people, and her treasure was scattered along the ocean floor, not to be seen again for 363 years.

The treasures of the Atocha shipwreck being recovered
Young crewmen lifting the first of ten bronze cannons located by Treasure Salvage Inc. in the Gulf of Mexico. The cannons carrying the royal crest of Philip III of Spain and dated 1607 are believed to be from the galleon Atocha sunk in a hurricane in 1622 (Getty Images).

For the next four centuries, eager treasure hunters dreamt of recovering the Atocha’s riches from the deep. In the 1960s, Mel Fisher, a diver with a keen interest in salvaging shipwrecks, began exploring the waters off the Florida coast in the hopes of finding the lost Spanish galleons – initially searching for the Santa Margarita, which he recovered in 1980. In 1985, Fisher’s team, Treasure Salvors Inc., discovered the main hull of the Atocha and its hidden treasure, which included 180,000 coins, 24 tonnes of Bolivian Silver ingots, 125 bars of gold bullion. They also logged 70 pounds of rough-cut Columbian emeralds mined in Chivor and Muzo. It was one of the largest sunken treasures ever discovered.

As one of Fisher’s patrons for the Atocha discovery, the American millionaire Frank Perdue was awarded some of the recovered treasures from the shipwreck, including silver, gold, gems and artefacts – the majority of which he donated to Delaware Tech and the Smithsonian Institution. He held on to one jewel, though – a shimmering emerald, which he later had cut and mounted onto a simple gold band to propose to his wife Mitzi in 1988.

6.25 carat emerald ring
The 6.25 carat emerald ring will go on sale at Sotheby’s in New York on 7th December, 2022.

The ring is estimated to fetch between US$50,000-70,000 (roughly £42,000-£58,000) when it goes on sale at Sotheby’s. “While I have cherished my beautiful engagement ring for over 30 years, I would like to use it now to benefit the great people of Ukraine,” said Mitzi Purdue. “I am honoured to partner with Sotheby’s in offering this jewel for auction this year, on the 400th anniversary of the Atocha shipwreck, and I know my late husband, Frank Perdue, would share my desire to help those in dire need.”

Indeed, it’s hoped that this once-lost, now rediscovered treasure will go towards helping Ukrainian people find the help they so desperately need at a time of crisis.

Like this? Read about the emerald tiara Bulgari created to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee.