Owner parts with rare emerald from 1622 shipwreck to help Ukraine

For years, Mitzi Perdue looked down at her hand and saw history.

The emerald on her ring finger told a story stretching back nearly four centuries, to the sinking of a Spanish galleon near the Florida Keys in 1622 and a decadeslong effort of a colorful undersea treasure hunter named Mel Fisher to retrieve its payload of gold and silver coins, gold nuggets and jewelry.

It reminded her, too, of her late husband, chicken magnate Frank Perdue, who received a share of the bounty in return for his investment in Fisher’s search. He donated most of it but kept the emerald and presented it to her when he proposed marriage in 1988. She wore it until his death in 2005, when she put it away for safekeeping.

Now, 400 years after the Nuestra Señora de Atocha sank in a hurricane, Perdue, 81, is putting the emerald up for auction Wednesday at Sotheby’s in New York City. All proceeds from the sale of the ring, which has an estimated value of $50,000 to $70,000, will be donated to support humanitarian efforts in Ukraine, prompted by Perdue’s visit there after the Russian invasion.

“What must it be like for the people who have been there enduring, continuously, with no respite, for at least half a year?” she said. “After five days, I wanted to do more. And then I started thinking, ‘What can I do to be most helpful?’ And then I thought, ‘I own something that’s of historic significance.’”

The Nuestra Señora de Atocha left Havana for Spain on Sept. 4, 1622, with 180,000 coins, 24 tons of ingots struck from Bolivian silver, 125 gold bullion bars and 70 pounds of rough-cut emeralds mined in present-day Colombia. It had been sailing for only a day when a hurricane sank it.

Fisher, who died in 1998, had moved his family to Florida in 1962, lured by the promise of finding offshore treasure. By 1969, he had embarked on a search for the Atocha. In 1985, Fisher and his team located the wreckage of the Atocha and recovered about $400 million worth of treasure.