A treasure trove of artifacts recovered from a 165-year-old shipwreck at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean is being auctioned off while the man responsible for the discovery is in prison.

If Tommy Thompson revealed the location of 500 gold coins, he would be released from prison.

Thompson is being held in contempt of court and fined $1,000 a day for every day he doesn't answer questions about the gold. He has racked up more than $2 million in fines and there is no sign he is close to being released.

Tommy Thompson, a former deep-sea treasure hunter, has spent six years in jail for refusing to disclose the whereabouts of 500 missing coins made from gold found in a historic shipwreck.
Tommy Thompson, a former deep-sea treasure hunter, has spent six years in jail for refusing to disclose the whereabouts of 500 missing coins made from gold found in a historic shipwreck.

Thompson said at the 2020 hearing that he didn't have the keys to his freedom.

The saga of the 'Ship of Gold'

Thompson is far removed from his life as one of the most successful treasure hunters in the U.S., a feat achieved when he and his team discovered the ship of gold. The Central America was carrying a lot of gold when it sank in the Carolinas in the 19th century, killing more than 400 people.

A group of insurance companies laid claim to the treasures without proof that they had insured them. Thompson and his team prevailed in the court battle.

The California Gold Marketing Group bought over 500 gold bars and thousands of coins from Thompson in 2000. Thompson said the majority of the money went to legal fees.

The group of investors who paid millions to help Thompson find the ship never saw their money back.

Thompson hid in a hotel under a fake name and paid for everything with cash.

A lot of cash was taken from the hotel when he was captured.

Thompson was sentenced to two years in prison for failing to show up for court.

Thompson has racked up years in contempt of court for violating his plea agreement, which required him to answer questions about the gold.

The judge seems prepared to hold Thompson out for a long time.

Judge Algenon Marbley said at a hearing in February that he would consider cooperation in confinement. He and others like him who don't believe that laws apply to them and who act in defiance of the law will always be accommodated.

The search for 500 gold coins

The treasure hunter has become a victim according to the former high-profile sports agent who bought the rights to Thompson's life story.

He should be punished for what he did. He's paid too much for a financial problem. People that kill people get out earlier than that.

"It's a cliché, but he's made his bed, and now he has to sleep in it," said Bob Evans, who was a member of Thompson's team.

Evans said that he was running out of time on himself. I don't feel bad for him because a lot of it was his fault.

Thompson has said he put the 500 gold coins in a blind trust. He didn't remember the location of the gold. Marbley said he won't rule on the requests until Thompson gets an attorney.

Thompson only has the use of a prison phone for up to 15 minutes a day because he is bogged down by medical issues, and he is trying to get an attorney.

Thompson said it was difficult to explain the number of obstacles. There are no deep-water oceanographers that are lazy. I work all the time here. It's difficult to talk from here.

Thompson's explanations have not been purchased by Marbley over the years.

Tommy Thompson, right, talks with Bob Evans on the Arctic Discoverer as they depart Norfolk, Va., on June 18, 1991. Thompson led a group that recovered millions of dollars worth of sunken treasure only to end up involved in court cases brought by dozens of insurance companies laying claim to the treasure.

He sounds like a treasure hunter who is also an engineer. He said in 2017: "He seems to be possessed of a steely will that will require him to just wait out all of his investors and everyone."

Marbley turned down a request from Thompson for more time to find an attorney, instead telling him to get one by the end of the year.

It is not clear if Thompson succeeded in doing so. A court hearing will be held in December to discuss his civil contempt.

Treasures of SS Central America on tour

The life of the ship of Thompson's dreams continues even though he is in legal limbo.

Hundreds of artifacts recovered from the ship are up for auction at the Reno Convention Center in Nevada and online at Holabird Western Americana Collections.

The first look at the artifacts, which include personal letters, clothing, a saloon sign, a pistol in its holster, and a photograph nicknamed "TheMona Lisa of the Deep", was given to USA TODAY months before the auction.

It's a time capsule. The human side of the story is what matters.

The team that discovered the SS Central America in 1988 nicknamed this area of the Atlantic Ocean seabed filled with some of the ship's sunken treasure "The Garden of Gold."

An armed security guard in a bulletproof vest was watching as a USA TODAY Network photographer took pictures and video of the artifacts.

The items range in value from a few hundred thousand dollars to more than a million dollars.

Evans, who has been on every voyage to the Central America, said they are worth more than that.

These objects have stories to tell. He said that it was the real thrill.

More exclusive reporting from USA TODAY

The article was originally published by USA TODAY.