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U.S. treasure hunters make $500M haul

It may be the world’s richest shipwreck, but the Spanish government has filed a claim to it

It may be the world’s richest shipwreck, but the Spanish government has filed a claim to it

A Florida treasure-hunting company has struck it rich, reporting the recovery of 17 tons of silver coins from a still-secret Atlantic shipwreck that the Spanish government has filed a claim to in court before the identity of the wreck is even known for sure.

Odyssey Marine Exploration of Tampa announced May 18 that it has excavated a half-million silver coins worth an estimated $500 million from a wreck it has code-named Black Swan. Odyssey would say only that Black Swan is a colonial wreck located among a number of such wrecks in the Atlantic outside the territorial waters of any nation. It says it won’t release any more information about Black Swan or its location until it has identified the ship, to protect itself against claim-jumpers and discourage unfounded court challenges to the wreck’s ownership.

“Based on past experience with other shipwrecks, we have found that putting out information about the identity of shipwrecks to the public before we are certain of the identity results in wild speculation about values, ownership rights and scores of other issues,” Odyssey says in a FAQ section on its Web site responding to an avalanche of media calls ( ).

The secrecy has hardly quelled speculation about the treasure. “We’ve had over a thousand media inquiries from all over the world,” says company spokeswoman Natja Igney.

In Britain the press reported that the wreck might be the British merchant vessel Merchant Royal, which sank in 1641 in rough seas about 40 miles off Land’s End, England, while carrying a huge payroll of silver coins to 30,000 Spanish soldiers in Flanders (Belgium). Odyssey has neither confirmed nor denied these reports.

Its closed-lip policy has led to suggestions in the Spanish press that Odyssey is trying to hide the find from the Spanish government. Spain has been monitoring Odyssey’s explorations for the HMS Sussex, a British warship that sank in 1693 in a violent storm off Spain in the western Mediterranean. The Sussex, which Odyssey identified in 2001, is believed to have been carrying a cargo of money valued today at up to a half-billion dollars. The money was to have been delivered secretly to the Italian Duke of Savoy to buy his loyalty as a British ally against France.

Odyssey has partnered with the British government to share Sussex’s artifacts and proceeds from their sale, and has asked Spanish officials to approve its archaeological plan before it starts excavation. Odyssey says no Black Swan coins are from the Sussex or any wreck near it.

Following Odyssey’s announcement that it had found and secretly shipped the coins to an undisclosed location in the United States, the Spanish government filed a “verified claim” in federal district court in Tampa, stating that it doesn’t intend to give up any Spanish property that might be on wrecks that Odyssey has filed admiralty claims on during the past year, including two unidentified colonial wrecks in the Atlantic and a 20th-century steamship, according to Odyssey.

Also, in early June Spanish media reported that a Spanish court had ordered the Guardia Civil to seize and search the Odyssey Explorer and Ocean Alert, two of Odyssey’s exploration vessels, if they leave their temporary base in the British colony of Gibraltar and enter Spanish waters. Odyssey spokeswoman MaryKatherine McCoy says Odyssey has nothing to hide and will continue to operate business as usual.

“We are happy to have Spanish officials and archaeologists come aboard,” she says. “They can come aboard at any time. We have always extended that invitation to them.”

“There was no point at which any aspect of the Black Swan operation was within the jurisdiction of Spanish authorities, and we will be pleased to provide proof of that fact to the Spanish government if requested officially,” Odyssey says. It acknowledges that Guardia Civil boats routinely monitor its operations in or near Spanish territorial waters, but the company says it always notifies authorities when it is operating there so it isn’t playing a cat-and-mouse game with them.

“We do believe that most shipwrecks that we recover, including the Black Swan, will likely result in claims by other parties,” the company says. “Many will be spurious claims, but we anticipate that there might be some legitimate ones as well. In the case of the Black Swan, it is the opinion of our legal counsel that even if a claim is deemed to be legitimate by the courts, Odyssey should still receive title to a significant majority of the recovered goods.”

If the $500 million Black Swan treasure is as rich as believed, it would rival the one that legendary treasure hunter Mel Fisher found 22 years ago in the Atocha wreck off the Florida Keys. Key West attorney David Horan, who pressed and won Fisher’s claim to the Atocha fortune in the U.S. Supreme Court, says most treasure-laden wrecks turn out to have been owned by one or another colonial government, so even if a wreck is outside any nation’s territorial waters ownership remains an issue.

In King of Spain v. Sea Hunt Inc. and the state of Virginia, the 4th U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the Spanish galleons La Galga and Juno, which sank off Assateague Island, Va., in 1750 and 1802, respectively, still belonged to the King of Spain because Spain had never formally abandoned the vessels — given up ownership. Horan, who unsuccessfully argued the 2000 case for the salvor, Sea Hunt, said in another of his cases — International Aircraft Recovery LLC v. U.S. — that the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals said a Navy torpedo bomber that crashed on a training mission off Miami Beach in 1943 was never abandoned by the Navy and couldn’t be abandoned except by an act of Congress. The Navy still owned the plane, and the salvor had no claim to it.

Horan says Odyssey’s latest find is under jurisdiction of U.S. federal court and subject to those precedents. If Black Swan is a warship or other vessel that once belonged to a nation’s government, especially Spain, “They [Odyssey] have some problems,” he says. “They could end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.” A perennial champion of salvors — who represented Fisher in 112 court cases to secure his claim to Atocha — Horan believes Odyssey could win in the Supreme Court because he thinks recent appellate decisions were in error.

Odyssey says a well-known numismatist, Nick Bruyer, whose has marketed coins from Odyssey’s other big find, the S.S. Republic, has examined 6,000 of the Black Swan coins and valued different ones from several hundred dollars to $4,000 apiece. He estimates the average retail sales price of the 500,000 coins at $1,000 each for a total value of $500 million for the haul. If that is true, then Black Swan and Fisher’s Atocha appear to be running in a dead heat for the distinction of world’s richest shipwreck.

Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a Spanish galleon that sank in a hurricane in 1622 about 10 miles west of the Marquesas Keys in the Florida Keys, yielded a haul valued at $400 million in 1985 when Fisher began to excavate it. Since then, the Fisher organization, Salvors Inc., of Key West, has continued to probe the 11-mile trail of debris that the galleon left after it went up on a reef in one hurricane, then broke apart in a second hurricane a week later.

Sean Fisher, Mel Fisher’s grandson and acting director of Salvors Inc., says that after excavating the mother lode divers salvaged about $100 million more along the debris trail. He says they still are looking for 420 silver bars and 130,000 silver coins that were on the ship’s manifest and 35 boxes of Catholic Church gold and other privately owned jewelry believed to have been in the stern castle. “There’s quite a bit out there yet to be found,” he says.

In addition to the Black Swan treasure, Odyssey has excavated about $75 million worth of Civil War era gold coins from the S.S.Republic wreck. The paddle-wheeler sank in a storm 100 miles southeast of Savannah, Ga., while transporting 20,000 $20 gold pieces to New Orleans to finance the city’s reconstruction. Black Swan could give a boost to Odyssey’s bottom line. The only treasure-hunting company traded on the stock exchange (AMEX: OMR), Odyssey reported a net loss of $3.8 million on $2.2 million in revenues for first quarter 2007. Those revenues, however, were up from $900,000 million in first quarter 2006.

The company also opened “Shipwreck! Pirates and Treasure,” an interactive shipwreck and treasure exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa that runs until Jan. 31, 2008. The exhibit will incorporate artifacts from the S.S. Republic and a shipwreck museum Odyssey opened in New Orleans the day Katrina hit. The museum has since closed and moved to Tampa. The company also reports that it is negotiating with the Disney organization on joint projects combining Disney’s media and entertainment savvy with Odyssey’s treasure hunting.

Odyssey explores ocean waters with its 251-foot Odyssey Explorer mother ship and a 7-ton remotely operated vehicle named Zeus. Zeus can dive 8,200 feet and excavate a site to archaeological standards. The company uses Zeus, along with sonar and magnetometer technology, to find wrecks, then uses its own acoustic positioning system and other proprietary technology to record the position of every artifact it recovers, take digital pictures and video of the artifact as it is recovered, and to recover and deposit the artifact in padded collection containers for the trip to the surface. Zeus is outfitted with a filtration system to capture small artifacts in the sediment.

David Horner, of Stuart, Fla. — an author and diver who has popularized shipwreck history — says Odyssey’s use of robotics to excavate wrecks and GPS position-keeping to keep its mother ship on-site without anchoring has brought treasure hunting into the 21st century. “It’s really sensational,” he says. “It offers real opportunities to find major new wrecks.” He says coins and artifacts recovered from the deep waters that Zeus can reach usually are very well preserved.

Sean Fisher, whose family has been treasure-hunting for almost 40 years, says he can appreciate the enormous amount of money and effort that Odyssey invested in finding this treasure. “But once you find it, then everyone else wants to put their hands on it,” he says.