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In 1903, a barge called the Harold tipped somewhere off the coast of New York City, sending most of its 7,700 silver-and-lead bars to the bottom. (Peter Barritt / Alamy)

The Search for the Guggenheim Treasure

Loot valued at $20 million lies off the coast of Staten Island, and Ken Hayes is on the hunt for the sunken silver bullion

Once the boat was anchored in place, Hayes took what looked like an electrified pole-vault pole and began to prod through a window-sized hole in the deck. With this detector he prodded down through the water, down through a century’s worth of tidal muck and dioxins that the crew had nicknamed “black mayonnaise.” Meanwhile, inside the wheelhouse Mark Padover watched a laptop screen for a spike in the readings. This prodding continued for a long time. An observer noted that hunting for sunken treasure is not as swashbuckling in real life as when Johnny Depp does it at the Cineplex. Hayes handed off the pole to a crewmate and sat down on the deck. The black-mayo-prodding went on.

“Contact!”

“When you hit it, it jumps!” Padover called out from in front of the computer screen.

“Well, I guess we get Pete’s tool out and try to bring it up,” Hayes says. To haul 75-pound bars out from under 96 years' worth of muck, machinist Pete Davis had designed an 11-foot harpoon with a nasty-looking screw at one end and a big drill at the other. (Davis’ harpoon two years earlier, powered by a .38 Special, had proven dramatic if ineffectual.)

“So if we latch onto a 900-pound piece of metal, how do we detach from it?” someone asked. A discussion involving hacksaws ensued.

“Let’s fish,” Hayes said, seeming a little anxious for results.

Drilling commenced. The harpoon was winched up, but with no silver bar attached. Hayes groaned and lay back on the deck and pulled his ball cap over his eyes. Everyone broke for lunch.

Now another boat appeared. The crew recognized it. “When we were out in August they came out and circled our boat for hours. They said they were looking for the silver, too, and they asked us if we wanted to collaborate,” Hayes said. The boat now circled again, as if stalking, then anchored a few hundred yards away and would remain there all day, doing nothing. Occasionally the documentary film crew would film a man on the boat, and the man on the boat would film the film crew filming him.

After lunch, somebody said, “Hey! There’s someone on the shore.” And there was—on the Staten Island side, dressed in black and armed with binoculars. (An informant? A security guard?) But when everybody looked his way, the man in black ducked behind some bushes.

The promise of $20 million tends to foster this kind of vaguely menacing behavior. When Hayes first started looking for the silver, he said he got several phone calls from parties who felt he was horning in on a locals’ opportunity, and the calls urged him to abandon his hunt. Once while he was diving in Bonaire, off the South American coast, his cell phone rang.

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