Saturday, November 03, 2007



By Ed Power
November 03, 2007

Technological advances have led to a surge in salvage teams diving the world's seas for buried treasure.

The race is on to recover the lost fortunes that languish at the bottom of the world's oceans. From the former pirate hunting grounds of the Caribbean to the windswept Irish coastline, recent advances in diving technology mean that sunken treasures once thought lost forever are now within reach of get-rich-quick salvage teams. Strike it lucky and these ocean-going adventurers stand to reap millions.

By any standards, the fortunes to be made are vast. In May, the Odyssey Explorer, a state-of -the- art salvage vessel owned by a Nasdaq-listed corporation, discovered a shipwreck off the Portuguese coast: on board were 500,000 silver coins worth an estimated e400m.

Yet while the salvage industry is elated at the prospect of hitting pay-dirt in the inky depths of the sea, national governments and archaeologists are aghast. To historians, sunken gallons are not repositories of loot but national heirlooms. You wouldn't allow someone to pocket a priceless Celtic chalice they uncovered in their garden, runs the argument. Why should a salvage team, trawling the murky depths, be treated differently?

In Ireland the face-off between treasure hunters and heritage campaigners came to a head in a long-running court battle over the fate of the Lusitania, the luxury liner torpedoed by a U-boats off the Old Head of Kinsale in May 1915 with the loss of 1,198 lives (the attack is credited as one of the reasons the US entered the First World War).

Twelve years ago, the government declared the wreck a heritage site under the National Monuments Act, which would safeguard it from interference by private divers for 100 years (one of the reasons offered for the move is the belief that, contained onboard, are arts treasures belonging to Hugh Lane).

However, the claim was contested by New Mexico diver F Gregg Bemis Jr, who said he had bought the Lusitania in 1968 from business partners who, in turn, had acquired it for £1000 from a UK insurance association.

Following a long legal dispute, the High Court found in favour of Bemis (the Supreme Court upheld the decision on appeal). Bemis is now free to explore the wreck, though, under the Supreme Court ruling, any fine art recovered (it's thought a lost Rubens masterpiece is on board) will be the property of the Irish state.

Spanish authorities deal more robustly with profit-hungry privateers. Upon reaching shore in Algericas, the master of the Odyssey was temporarily thrown in jail, accused of tampered with a Spanish national treasure.

While Odyssey's owner says they cannot definitively identify the recently uncovered wreckage, Spain believes it to be the remains of the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, a Spanish warship sunk by the British off Portugal. With the recovered loot having been shipped to Florida, the question of its ownership is currently being fought in court over there.

The hard-line Spanish response contrasts with that of the British government, which has struck a deal with Odyssey that will see the two parties split the proceeds if the company recovers another sunken ship, the HMS Sussex, which vanished off Gibraltar in 1693, with an estimated e350m fortune (in today's money) on board. In Britain, conservationists are horrified over their government's action.

"For generations these hugely important sites were safe because they were too far down to be safely reached. But improvements in technology mean they are now quite easily accessible," says Dr David Gaimster, general secretary of the Society of Antiquaries in the UK.

"These irreplaceable cultural resources are now being stripped. They are not being archaeologically recorded but looted for profit with the bullion and other precious metals being melted down or sold to collectors, with the result that they are lost for ever."

In this regard, one difference between Spain and Ireland is that the former has ratified the 2001 Unesco Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, which forbids the private exploration of wrecks.

The two biggest opponents to the convention are the US and Britain, whose governments say it makes little sense to give blanket protection to the world's estimated three million sunken ships when only the best preserved should be safeguarded. Their continued refusal to sign is seen as giving carte blanche to profit -hungry divers.

The trouble with the US approach, says the heritage lobby, is that it is almost impossible to strip a ship of its gold without inflicting major damage on the wreck. That's assuming the salvagers have any interest in saving the wreck in the first place.

"It is very difficult to recover seven tons of coin without destroying the organic material, such as the surgeon's chest or the musical instruments," says Robert Yorke, chairman of London's Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee.

"That sort of archaeology is incompatible with a ship that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars a day to run and when you are working with shareholders on the Nasdaq."


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