Captain Tracy Bowden is among the most successful of treasure hunters, but there's devil a bit of swash nor buckle about him.

Bowden, 41, led an expedition that salvaged two of the most fabulous sunken Spanish ships ever found. Although it has made him famous and will make him rich, what he is most proud of is the historical value of the wrecks of the Conde de tolosa and Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe.

Showing visitors around the display of the recovered artifacts that opened this week at the National Geographic Society, Bowden hurried past cases of gold, jewels, silver and pearls to one filled with glassware.

"Aren't they beautiful," he said (it was not a question). "They were still nested in their packing, and most of them unbroken although the ships were cast away in a hurricane. From the testimony at the inquest we know how the owners died, but from these household items we can tell how they lived."

When pressed Bowden went on to admit that many of the engraved goblets and pottery jugs and other relatively mundane pieces actually are worth more than their weight in gold, both to historians and collectors. "Pieces of eight and so forth are rather plentiful in comparison" he said. "Most of these objects are unique, and beyond that they're documented and legal."

There is no way even to estimate their value, he said, although the ordere of magnitude certainly is millions. "By definition there is no market value. You could sell a piece today for what you think is an incredible price, and tomorrow run into a guy who'll say he would have given twice that much for it."

The display at the Geographic amounts to several hundred artifacts, but represents only a tenth of the treasure Caribe Salvage S.A., Bowden's company, came away with. And that was but half of the haul, which was split with the Dominican Republic, off whose coast the vessels sank in 1724. Perhaps 800 lives were lost, many of the wreck survivors perishing on the forlorn coast when they are poison fruit.

There are about 400 more wrecks around the island, ranging from warships to World War II freighters and including many ships from the Spanish gold fleets. Much of the profits will underwrite further expeditions of Caribe's 130-foot salvage vessel Hickory, a recycled Coast Guard buoy tender of which Bowden is both master and chief diver.

"I wear about four hats, including director of the company," he said, "but the one that gives me the headache is the captain's cap. The normal role of a master is to keep his ship away from reefs and dangerous waters, but since that's where ships are lost, that's where we go." He has ridden out a 200-mph Caribbean hurricane aboard Hickory, and in March 1979 survived an earthquake while diving alone on Tolosa.

"We've certainly had problems," he said "This is a high-risk business, both physically and financially. But one thing that has made the whole experience delightful is the rapport we've had with the Commission of Underwater Archeological Recovery of Santo Domingo. Most Caribbean nations have had awful problems with treasure hunters, but they have treated us with respect and trust."

Bowden will be going back to Guadalupe to try to recover some of the tons of liquid mercury still aboard, which is worth several dollars a pound. "It's under heavy timbers and a huge mass of iron fittings that were to be used for shipbuilding in the New World. We'll have to penetrate the wreck to get to the mercury, and before we do that we'll want to make sure we have recovered everything of historical value."

The mercury was to be used for extracting gold and silver from ore mined in Mexico. The loss of 400 tons of it, a year's supply, cut bullion production to a trickle in 1725 and nearly bankrupted the Spanish Empire. It is such historical detail, which Bowden has been researching in the great Spanish Archives in Seville and in the Dominican Republic, that makes Bowden's eyes sparkle. Ask him about gold and he'll tell you about how the military commander of the expedition was last seen hanging onto a ship's rail, his long black cape streaming behind him in the wind as tears streamed from his eyes.

Had the two ships been homeward bound they would have been crammed with bars of gold and silver, tons and tons of it, somebody mused. "Yes of course," Bowden said. "But they wouldn't have been half so interesting."

TREASURE -- At the National Geographic Society, 17th and M Streets NW. Weekdays 9 to 6, Saturdays and holidays 9 to 5, Sundays 10 to 5.