With a hearty flourish and devilish grin, Pat Croce hoists a Jolly Roger flag while standing aboard a re-created ship deck inside his Pirate & Treasure Museum in St. Augustine, Fla. (pop. 12,975).
“Pirates were generally a lazy bunch,” says Croce, 57, explaining why the seafaring robbers used the skull-and-crossbones symbol to identify their occupation to captains and crews of other ships. “They preferred raising the black flag because it made seizing a ship easier.”
A businessman with a childlike fascination for “all things pirate,” Croce has amassed one of the world’s largest collections of authentic pirate artifacts, which he shares with would-be buccaneers in his interactive museum.
“It teaches history, geography and science—and it’s also way cool,” Croce says of the museum.
Among more than 800 items displayed are the original journal from Capt. William Kidd’s last 17th-century voyage; the world’s oldest “wanted poster,” dated 1696, when English authorities offered 500 pounds for the head of “arch pirate” Henry Every; and one of the world’s two known authentic Jolly Roger flags.
Croce’s passion for pirates began while growing up in Philadelphia, Pa. “I remember sitting on the living room floor with my father watching Errol Flynn as a pirate in the 1935 movie ‘Captain Blood’,” recalls Croce, who today lives near Philadelphia. “The movie had a great impact on me, with its swashbuckling adventures and treasures. I wanted to be a pirate!”
Alas, he was born more than 250 years late. The Golden Age of Piracy—made famous by rogues such as Kidd, Calico Jack, Anne Bonny and Black Bart Roberts—occurred from 1690 to 1730.
Still, Croce found a way to feed his “pirate soul.” While amassing a personal fortune as founder of a sports medicine chain, he began collecting pirate relics. In the 1980s, he made his first significant purchase—a 1684 first-edition copy of Alexander Exquemelin’s “Bucaniers of America,” which describes the pillage and plunder of pirates such as Sir Henry Morgan.
“There’s all kinds of blood and guts in this book,” says Croce, who with each turn of the page got hooked on pirate history and artifacts.
During the next 30 years, he acquired more than 500 artifacts with money earned as an author, motivational speaker, television personality and, from 1996 to 2001, president of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers.
In 2005, he exhibited his treasures in his Pirate Soul museum in Key West, Fla. In 2011, he moved his collection to St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest city, where notorious pirates such as Sir Francis Drake and Robert Searles plundered the seaport town during the 16th and 17th centuries.
“We’re right at the bay where Drake sailed in,” says Croce, who supplements his museum’s display with pirate loot on loan from the state of Florida, which claims 20 percent of all treasures excavated from its waters.
Croce’s favorite relic is the world’s only surviving pirate treasure chest, which he purchased in 2000 from a public library in West Fork, N.Y. The 150-pound iron chest once belonged to Thomas Tew, who plundered ships in the Red Sea in 1695. “Captain Tew was a very smart pirate,” says Croce, pointing to a fake keyhole on the chest’s front panel and then to an elaborate hidden lock on top.
The museum also displays booty such as a gold bar, jewelry and coins recovered in 1985 by treasure hunter Mel Fisher from the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which sank in 1622 off the Florida Keys.
Hollywood pirates, who inspired Croce’s pirate obsession as a youngster, are remembered, too. Paste jewels and plastic gold doubloons from the 1985 movie “The Goonies” are displayed alongside the jacket that Flynn wore while portraying Captain Blood and the sword wielded by actor Johnny Depp in the 2003 film “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
While acknowledging that pirates historically were villains rather than heroes, Croce notes that they also were captivating characters who chose freedom over authority and tyranny, and who operated their ships on democratic principles.
“Anybody—no matter what their social class, gender, religion or ethnicity—could become a pirate,” Croce says.