Friday, September 30, 2005


Italians hunt for undersea treasure


September 27, 2005

Cargo of silver and gold was lost off Tuscany 164 years ago.
Rome - A team of Italian divers is preparing to descend into the waters off the island of Elba in search of a massive hoard of gold and silver coins believed to have sunk there in 1841.

The coins, along with an unknown quantity of precious jewels, were being carried secretly aboard a Genoese steamship when it was attacked by a Neapolitan vessel for reasons which remain unclear.

The steamship, the Polluce, sank and all its precious cargo was lost.

But its wreck was recently located at a depth of 103 metres, about five miles out from Elba's main port. Weather conditions permitting, a team of divers will begin the treasure hunt at the start of October, descending to the sea floor in a pressurised chamber and then venturing out to explore.

They will comb the wreck and sift the surrounding sand with equipment similar to that used to recover the black boxes of crashed airliners.

The expedition is being mounted by a private association, the Historical Diving Society of Italy, which has won the sponsorship of regional and national authorities.

Whatever is found will remain the property of the Italian state and so cannot be sold. Instead the HDSI, which has stumped up over 500,000 euros for the operation, intends to set up a travelling exhibition and recover its investment from ticket sales.

"We're not 100% sure there's anything there. It's something of a gamble," admitted Enrico Cappelletti, a writer and diving enthusiast who spearheaded the initiative after extensive research.

Although there have been several attempts to find the legendary treasure, past expeditions never knew exactly where to look and all of them failed.

But in the late 1990s a French historian managed to pinpoint the location from old library records and documents in state archives. He then promptly sold the information to a group of English adventurers .

Forging the necessary authorisations, the group hired the necessary equipment, found the wreck and tried secretly in 2000 to recover its treasure.

But, despite having practically destroyed the wreck in the course of their search, they only managed to find 2,000 coins and a few jewels.

The art squad of the Italian Carabinieri police got wind of the operation and, when the English treasure hunters tried to sell their coins at a London auction house, British detectives stepped in and seized their haul.

Scotland Yard handed the coins over to their Italian colleagues the following year.

Cappelletti investigated the illegal bid made by the English adventurers, and even spoke to some of them. In the process of his enquiries, the precise position of the Polluce eventually emerged.

Soon after the Historical Diving Society of Italy, a group of people interested in underwater archaeology, began planning a new, authorised mission to find the treasure.

Because the details of Polluce's precious cargo were omitted in official documents, several legends have grown up about what it contained. One of them says the ship was also carrying the gold-plated coach of Ferdinand IV, then king of Naples.


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