The Robbins Treasure Medals
APOLLO 12 and APOLLO 15 - The Final Word © Howard C. Weinberger, 2008
The 1999 book, The Robbins Medallions - Flown treasure from the Apollo space program, reported that some of the Apollo 12 and Apollo 15 silver Robbins medals were struck from salvaged Spanish treasure silver from the 1715 Plate Fleet that sunk off the coast of Cape Canaveral. The 2006 follow-up book, The Robbins Medallions - Flown treasure from the manned space programs, attempted to fine-tune the data when two letters written by George Ryan, the Robbins Company representative in charge of the astronaut medals, were discovered that actually referred to the silver as salvaged silver from a 1400s shipwreck. When one of the 82 Apollo 12 treasure medals fetched a record price of $9,560 in the September 2007 Heritage Air & Space sale, a few in the community became motivated to make an effort to provide a more definitive and reliable explanation about them. Until this record sale, Apollo 12 silver Robbins medals had been selling in the $3,000-$5,000 for quite some time so this new level certainly raised some attention. This was the only Apollo 12 silver Robbins medal in the September Heritage sale, so it is not absolutely clear whether the bidders were chasing Apollo 12 or specifically the Apollo 12 treasure medal.
Apollo 12 Robbins medals have two distinctive characteristics, which make it easy for us to determine which were struck from treasure silver. There were a total 262 silver Robbins medals struck for Apollo 12. Numbers 1 through 82 were struck directly and wholly from recovered treasure medal. Besides letters that confirm this information, these 82 medals themselves are the only ones not marked with the sterling silver quality mark. Early Spanish silver was normally of a higher purity than sterling, which is 92.5% pure silver. Therefore these medals were not sterling and were not marked as such. The medals numbered 83 through 262 were struck from the traditional sterling silver. On these medals all contain the sterling quality mark below the serial number.
The one correction to set straight then is that they were indeed, as originally reported in the first Robbins book, struck from silver salvaged from the 1715 Plate Fleet wreck that occurred off of Cape Canaveral. The second Robbins book corrected this point to say that the treasure was actually salvaged from Spanish treasure from the 1400s. Although two letters from George Ryan, the Robbins company representative in charge of astronaut medals, state that they were made from treasure metal from Spanish silver from the 1400s, we can only assume that Mr. Ryan only generally understood that these were struck from treasure metal, but did not sense any critical need to be exact. I feel confident of this fact by reviewing a bit of history researched by Larry McGlynn. The silver fleets did not begin sailing until the 1520s or 1530s. Cortez and Pizarro had not conquered Mexico or Peru until then. The timing would not match up with a 1400s treasure fleet. Larry has also confirmed interviews with Alan Bean, Dick Gordon and one dealer that worked with Pete Conrad at the time, and they all confirmed that Pete told them that the silver came from the 1715 Plate Fleet wrecks. Finally, Larry also confirmed with Jim Rathman, the man who engineered the whole deal for Pete Conrad, that the ingots came from silver from the 1715 Plate Fleet recovery.
The story about the Apollo 15 medals is trickier. Again, in the 2006 follow-up book, The Robbins Medallions - Flown treasure from the manned space programs, I was able to report that the treasure silver came from the same providers of the silver for Apollo 12. Astronaut friend, Jim Rathman introduced Apollo 15 crewmember Al Worden to treasure hunter Arthur Hartmann, who provided him an ingot of silver to be flown aboard Apollo 15. Apparently Worden was first interested in obtaining a gold ingot, but it was too heavy.
Here is where the story changes. According to Worden, the actual ingot of silver was flown and no medals were struck from it prior to the mission. In this case, that would mean that any original medals did not contain treasure silver and were purely made from regular sterling stock. When Apollo 15 returned to Earth, the ingot was sent to Robbins, who had it melted and added to a melt of unflown sterling silver to create a special melt. The newly struck and corrected Apollo 15 medals, numbers 128-304, were then struck from this new melt.
So there you have the entire progression. The first book reported based upon George Ryan's letters, which stated that the medals were made with Spanish treasure silver. The second book further reported that the treasure silver was from a 1400s shipwreck, but it was not. It is now confirmed that it was from the 1715 Plate Fleet wreck as explained under the Apollo 12 chapter. The second book did correctly confirm where the silver originated, but the second book also reported that the original medals were struck from treasure silver and that the newly struck corrected medals, struck post-mission, were made from regular sterling silver stock, when actually just the opposite is true.
The question remains as to why all Apollo 15 medals, flown and unflown, are marked with the sterling silver quality mark. Like the Apollo 12 medals, why wouldn't the corrected Apollo 15 medals remain unmarked? I can only apply some science as to why. The Apollo 12 medals are 100% treasure silver, and as such, are much purer silver than sterling, and would not require a sterling mark. Al Worden suggests that the silver ingot that he flew weighed approximately 2.2 ounces. When one computes that an average Apollo 15 Robbins medal weighs approximately 20 grams, or approximately .70 of an ounce, we can see that the 177 unflown Apollo 15 Robbins medals contain only a small amount of treasure silver, approximately 1.76%. This small dilution would not necessarily require the sterling quality mark to be omitted.
In spite of anything known to the contrary, the unflown medals have been fetching strong bids at auction. The good news for collectors, and especially for people who have already acquired an Apollo 15 unflown medal in the past, is that they can now say that the previously thought unflown medals do contain some flown metal.