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Columbus' ship bell on the block for $1-million

©Associated Press
February 8, 2003

MADRID -- For sale: one ship's bell, old and corroded, big piece missing. Past user: Columbus.

Bidding starts at $1-million when that bronze artifact from the Santa Maria, the flagship of Christopher Columbus' historic 1492 voyage, goes to auction Feb. 20 in Madrid.

The bell belongs to an Italian diver, Roberto Mazzara, who found it in a shipwreck off Portugal's coast in 1994 and did years of detective work to prove it is the bell that tolled when Columbus and his tiny flotilla arrived in America.

A Barcelona auction house expects about 10 bidders, a mix of private and institutional buyers, to vie for the one-of-a-kind piece.

It not only is the oldest ship's bell recovered and the only known relic from Columbus' first journey across the Atlantic -- it also symbolizes that instant when European settlers first glimpsed the New World.

"Let's be frank," Mazzara said. "This object has a value that is incalculable."

Pretty, it is not. Turquoise rust cakes much of the bell after spending 450 years underwater. A gaping hole with jagged edges mars much of the top half of the bell, which measures about 10 inches tall and 10 inches in diameter.

Encrusted in the bottom part is a flat, white seashell the size of a fingernail. The bell weighs about 31 pounds.

Is it for real? Yes, said Claudio Bonifacio, a shipwreck expert who has done extensive research as a consultant on this and other sunken treasure cases at the Archive of the Indies, the official record of Spain's colonial era. "It is not fake," he said.

Mazzara, 41, and another diver found the bell while searching for a gold-laden Spanish galleon San Salvador that was twice the size of the Santa Maria and sank off northern Portugal en route to Spain in 1555.

The Atlantic waters were calm the July 1994 day when Mazzara's colleague spotted a small arc of metal peaking out of the seabed in just 25 feet of water, about 150 yards from the beach.

Mazzara said his buddy yanked on the metal so hard it broke -- apparently causing at least part of the hole that mars the bell today -- and whipped out a knife to scrap away undersea crud until Mazzara wrestled the bell away from him.

Mazzara's first reaction was puzzlement. The bell had been found in what was the San Salvador's cargo section rather than its mast, where it should have been if it had been the galleon's bell.

Also, the bell was too small and plain for such a powerful, well-armed vessel, designed to carry vast loads of gold, silver and gems from the Americas back to Spain's royal court.

Why would anyone bother to ship such a cheap ringer back to Spain, especially when bells -- used for churches, alarms and assemblies, among other things -- were in such short supply in America?

"The first thing I thought was, 'This thing should not be here,' " Mazzara said from his home in Algeciras in southern Spain. "The feeling I had was like finding a refrigerator inside the treasure chamber of the Great Pyramid."

An important clue appeared on the bell. The small hole at the top, for hanging the bell, showed signs of erosion caused by a metal object. While in use on the ship, the bell would have hung from rope, so there should be no erosion.

The use of metal -- nails, which were square back then and thus abrasive in the hole -- suggested the bell was attached to a wall or tree. Then, at some point, someone in Spain decided the bell was so valuable it should be brought home.

Mazzara hypothesized -- and Bonifacio and other academics agreed -- that the bell was used at the fort Columbus ordered built on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.

The bell was taken ashore when the Santa Maria ran aground on Dec. 25, 1492, along with wood from the ship, in order to build the fortress named Navidad, or Christmas.

Archives of the Indies documents and other records show that in 1555, Columbus' grandson Luis was expecting a shipment of family belongings from Santo Domingo, the city founded on Hispaniola.

Records also say a bell in storage at a fortress in nearby Puerto Rico was listed as being worth 32 pesos, an amount equal to three times the yearly salary of a 16th century sailor.

In addition, the manifest from the San Salvador -- the wreck Mazzara found -- said the cargo included a bell from a fortress called Navidad.

"It would make no sense for this not to be the bell of the Santa Maria," Bonifacio said.

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