206 photographs of noted Florida treasure hunter Art McKee

Collection Number: N2005- 8

Creator: Weller, Robert

Title: Art McKee and family photographic collection, ca. 1940s-1970s

Quantity: 206 photographs


This collection consists of photographs of noted Florida treasure hunter Art McKee and his family includes images of McKee as a diver working on the early pipeline across Moser Channel in the Florida Keys; his two museums of sunken treasure on Plantation Key; McKee and associates underwater excavating the flagship of the 1733 Spanish Plate Fleet in the 1950s and 1960s; artifacts from various shipwrecks, including HMS Winchester on Carysfort Reef in the Florida Keys; and silver bars recovered from one of the salvage vessels working the wreck site of the Maravillas that sank in 1656 north of Memory Rock, Grand Bahamas.

Historical Note:

Arthur McKee Jr. , known as Art "Silver Bar" McKee, was a noted Florida treasure diver for many years and is often referred to as "the father of modern treasure diving." Sometimes called "The Treasure Hunter's Treasure Hunter," McKee pioneered salvage work on historic shipwrecks in the days before scuba diving became popular. His nickname was derived from the silver bars he recovered off Gorda Cay. Robert "Frogfoot" Weller, who collected these photographs of McKee and his family, is a close friend of the McKee family and is also a long-time treasure hunter and author of several books on Florida's treasure hunting. Born in Wyandotte, Michigan, Weller graduated from the University of Delaware in 1957 with a degree in civil engineering.

Art McKee was born in Bridgeton, New Jersey, on November 2, 1910, and spent his teenage summers as a lifeguard teaching others to swim and free dive. After high school, he worked as a tender for an old helmet diver who was repairing a bridge on the Delaware River. Seeking warmer and clearer waters, he moved to Florida in 1934 and got a job as chief diver for the underwater pipeline that ran from Homestead to Key West. He then worked as recreational director for the City of Homestead for ten years. On days off he would prowl the outer reefs of the Florida Keys looking for brass or copper from shipwrecks that he could sell for scrap. He became the Chief Diver from the State of Florida to check the various viaducts from the keys leading westward to Key West.

In 1937, a commercial fisherman showed McKee a pile of ballast stones and cannons off Plantation Key, and McKee began to find Spanish silver coins, including one gold escudo coin dated 1721. Curious about his find, he wrote to the Archive of the Indies in Spain and received a packet of documents relating the fate of the 1733 Spanish treasure fleet that was wrecked in the Florida Keys during a hurricane. From translations of the documents, McKee learned that the wreck off Plantation Key was the Capitana, El Rubi Segundo, flagship of the fleet. During the next ten years, he and his partners searched up and down the Keys, exploring more than 75 shipwrecks. Meanwhile, during World War II, McKee worked as a diver for the Navy (1941-1942) on the construction of the freshwater pipeline.

In 1948, McKee began working the ballast mound that had been shown to him from the 1733 Capitana. Among the cannons, ballast, and other treasures were silver coins dated 1732. In 1949, having a warehouse full of artifacts and treasure from several different wrecks, McKee opened to the public the first museum in the world devoted to sunken treasure, on Plantation Key at Treasure Harbor. He took visitors to the Capitana in his glass-bottom boat, and he took many of them on underwater tours in his diving helmet. Three years later he opened the "Sunken Treasure Museum" on U.S. #1 , Plantation Key. He built it to resemble a fortress, with cannons on the ramparts and the huge 16 foot anchor from the Capitana mounted out front.

Eventually, McKee obtained a lease from the State of Florida to explore older shipwrecks and located several other shipwrecks from the 1733 fleet. He also explored shipwrecks in the Bahamas and in the Pedro Bank south of Jamaica.