It's about saving these treasures from the trash bin of history.
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. February 14, 2018
It wasnâ€™t gold, silver or even precious stones, but copper that caught treasure hunter Ben Bensonâ€™s interest this time. Buried away in a nondescript US Government warehouse lay the original master copper engraving plates used to create maps of areas within the United States. Authorized by Congress in 1880, the hand-etched engravings were typically 17â€� x 21â€� each requiring hundreds of hours of careful work, resulting in true works of art that were the most accurate maps of our country for many years.
In 2015, with little fanfare, the US Government decided to dispose of those historical treasures. Any governmental agencies and museums that were aware of the disposition could apply to receive some of the engravings, with the rest to be auctioned off.
Thatâ€™s where Benson came in. He regularly peruses the government auction website and has bid on many unusual and varied items, such as a Cold War-era, 140-acre underground nuclear protected complex in Kansas, a small town in the Virginia Mountains formerly used as an NSA-Navy Base and a massive ice-breaking tugboat. In 2013, Benson even bought the USS Baylander, a helicopter landing ship billed as the US Navyâ€™s smallest aircraft carrier.
â€œI first saw the copper plates on the government auction website, listed, oddly enough, in the jewelry section,â€� Benson said. â€œWhat I saw truly amazed me. The plates capture America as it once was, a moment frozen in time. Think of it, Newport Beach, CA-1894, with just a handful of buildings along the coastline; Malibu, CA-1900, as a nearly undeveloped coast; and also a (back-then) â€œsmall townâ€� â€” Bridgeport, CT in 1889.
â€œThe map plates are national, historic treasures. I am surprised that the US Government would dispose of them. Wouldnâ€™t it be a shame if they were melted down for the scrap copper value?â€�
Keenly aware of the risks of finding lost â€œtreasureâ€�, Benson nonetheless spent a small fortune acquiring 862 sets of the plates, encompassing some 44 states and weighing 16 tons. Now he hopes to connect them with others who care about history.
Currently, Benson is focusing on reaching out to people in the areas represented by the maps, who, Benson believes, will find meaning and pride in owning a part of their local history. He will begin auctioning the California plate collection this month.
â€œThis project isnâ€™t about making money,â€� Benson said. â€œI would be happy just to break even. Itâ€™s about saving these local treasures from the trash bin of history.â€�
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