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Gold bullion discovered on sunken Spanish ship stolen from Florida museum

Gold bullion worth over half a million dollars was stolen from a museum in the Florida Keys earlier this week.

By Associated Press / August 20, 2010

In this 2009 image taken from video and released by the Florida Keys News Bureau, an unidentified boy picks up a historic gold bar on display at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, Fla. The bar was stolen from the museum on August 18. Valued at about $550,000 it had been safely displayed at the museum for more than 20 years.

AP Photo/Florida Keys News Bureau, Steve Panariello

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Key West, Florida

Two thieves entered a museum shortly after closing time and stole a gold bar worth about $550,000 that had been recovered from the shipwreck of a Spanish galleon off the Florida Keys, police said.

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Police and the FBI are working to identify the suspects who took the gold bar Wednesday afternoon from the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, where it had been on display for more than 20 years.

The gold bar had been locked in a see-through case that allowed visitors to touch and lift it, while keeping it secure. Security footage shows the suspects breaking into the case after the museum closed for the night, police said.

The bar was recovered from the Santa Margarita shipwreck in 1980 by the late Key West shipwreck salvor Mel Fisher and his crew, while searching for the Santa Margarita and Nuestra Senora de Atocha galleons.

The Spanish ships — loaded with gold, silver and jewelry — were two of eight to sink during a 1622 hurricane. According to the museum's website, a fleet of 28 ships had left Havana bound for Spain, all packed with treasure.

"Everybody who comes to the museum is encouraged to lift the gold bar and to have a firsthand experience with history," said Melissa Kendrick, the museum's executive director. "This is one of the most iconic and best known objects in the museum."

Kendrick said the museum's insurance company is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the return of the 74.85-ounce bar.

One suspect is described as a white male, about six feet tall with dark hair and a medium build, the Key West Police reported. The second suspect is about five feet, six inches tall.

"The security systems worked because we knew the bar was stolen within 10 minutes, and we have usable video and photos for law enforcement," Kendrick said. "The museum made a decision to designate this as a handling object, allowing people to touch the artifact, and this was part of the risk involved in granting public access."

The museum and associated Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society are an internationally recognized center for excavation, preservation, research and exhibition of New World maritime artifacts.

The museum holds the richest single collection of 17th-century maritime and shipwreck antiquities in the Western Hemisphere, including treasures and artifacts from the Atocha and Santa Margarita.

Much of both galleons' precious cargo was recovered in the 1970s and 1980s under the leadership of Fisher, founder of the society and museum, who died in 1998. The search for artifacts, treasures and other items from the vessels continues to be directed by his family.