The Thomas Tew Treasure Chest is a historic pirate chest that once belonged to pirate Thomas Tew and is now on display at the St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum. It is considered the only surviving authentic treasure chest in the world.
The treasure chest dates back to the 17th century and is a 150 pound, iron strong box decorated with painted florals, birds and angels in the Spanish style.
It also features a flat recessed hinged lid with a lock mechanism covered by an engraved plate with a central keyhole at the top, a dummy keyhole on the front of the chest and twist drop handles on each side of the chest. The interior of the chest is painted orange and has a smaller locking compartment on one side.
Thomas Tew was an English privateer from Rhode Island who later became a pirate and embarked on two major pirate voyages before being killed while attacking a Mughal ship near the mouth of the Red Sea in 1695.
Tew allegedly used this treasure chest to carry his plunder from the Red Sea to Rhode Island in 1694 and then left it behind in Newport, Rhode Island when he embarked on his doomed voyage in 1695.
Iron strong boxes such as these were used to transport valuables during the 17th and 18th centuries and were more durable than wooden chests that people often associate with pirate treasure chests.
According to author and curator of the St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum, Matt Frick, in his book A Gold Chain, a Wooden Leg, and a Treasure Chest, the long lost chest was located in 1945 when a woman who identified herself as the great-great-great-great-great granddaughter of Thomas Tew, Mrs. Johnson Sims of Philadelphia, contacted author and historian Edward Rowe Snow about retrieving Thomas Tew’s treasure chest from a private seller in Chatham, Mass.
Sims said the chest had been left in Chatham by Tew’s grandson and it was sold to a private collector in Cape Cod in 1798.
It’s not actually confirmed that Tew even had descendants but there are many sources that believed he did. There is no evidence that he owned property in Rhode Island or that he ever married but stories about Tew descendants in the area have thrived over the centuries and many people have made claims that they are a descendant of Tew.
Sims told Snow that a relative of hers claimed to have seen the treasure chest himself in Chatham in 1920. She managed to track the chest down and found it in the possession of an antiques dealer in Yarmouth, named Flora Tripp, who had recently purchased it from the Bursely family, which were a notable family of seafarers in Chatham.
Sims visited Tripp to view the chest and tried to purchase it but she couldn’t strike a deal because the legal ownership of the chest came into question when members of the Bursely family stated that Tripp didn’t legally own the chest because they stated that whoever sold it to Tripp in the first place had no legal right to sell it.
Tripp was fortunately able to reacquire the chest from the family on February 5, 1946 and allowed Snow to purchase it for Sims for $40.
Before Snow could deliver the chest to Sims though, she died and none of her other relatives were interested in it.
Snow later sold the chest to his friend Richard Nesmith, author of Dig for Pirate Treasure, who later sold it to the Wichita Public Library in 1957 for its Driscoll Piracy Collection.
The library had the chest in its vast collection of pirate artifacts for over 40 years but eventually decided to sell the entire collection due to a lack of interest from its patrons and because the artifacts were very old and fragile and needed to be better preserved.
In 2000, the library auctioned off the treasure chest at Christie’s auction house in New York where it was purchased by Pat Croce, owner of the St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum, for $63,450. The chest is still on display at the museum and is currently insured for $1 million.
If you want to own your version of Thomas Tew’s treasure chest, the museum sells a miniature version of the chest in its gift shop online.
If you would like to visit the St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum to see the treasure chest yourself and want to save money on tickets, check out this article on St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum discount tickets.
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“Pirate’s Chest.” Christie’s, christies.com/en/lot/lot-1953673