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Robert Trigaux

For Tampa's Odyssey Marine, treasure hunting a cruel world of big ocean finds, bigger court losses




A cannon was recovered in 2008 from the wreckage of the H.M.S. Victory in the English Channel, in this photo courtesy of Odyssey Marine.

Wake up and good morning. What the world's oceans giveth, international law taketh away. Tampa's undersea treasure hunters, Odyssey Marine Exploration, continues it win-a-lot, lose-a-lot ways in the unique world of searching for shipwrecks in the hopes of hitting another mother lode.

"A deal was struck on Wednesday to save what could prove to be one of the richest treasure wrecks of all time. " a New York Times story begins. The report describes how four years ago, in the depths of the English Channel, explorers found the remains of a legendary British warship that sank in 1744 and lost more than 1,000 men. But intruders disturbed the site, dragging and damaging some of the 44 bronze cannons visible on the sandy bottom and hauling one of them away. The wreck’s fate became a topic of public debate in Britain, and not just because of the nation’s efforts to preserve its maritime heritage: documents suggested that the warship, the H.M.S. Victory, had carried a secret cargo of gold coins weighing about four tons, the Times story says.

"If melted down, the gold might be worth $160 million. But if sold for their historic value, the coins might fetch $1 billion."

The good news for Odyssey Marine? As discoverers of the wreck, the Tampa company said  Wednesday it had signed an agreement in which they would document and recover the artifacts, ending a long period of uncertainty. They praised the accord as an innovative new way for nations to save historic wrecks, the Times story reports.

"We’ve come up with the model that everybody’s been looking for," Gregory P. Stemm, head of the discovery team and CEO of Odyssey Marine, told the Times. The Tampa firm will recover the warship’s remains for the Maritime Heritage Foundation, a British charity that received the title to the wreck from British authorities.

The upside? The foundation will reimburse Odyssey's costs and pay it a percentage of the fair market value of the recovered artifacts. Odysseys gets 80 percent for items used in commerce (notably coins) and 50 percent for warship objects such as weapons.

odysseyblackswancoins2007courtesyodyssey.jpgBut things are faring worse for Odyssey in another of its discovered shipwrecks that has landed the firm in extensive court wrangling with Spain. 

In Atlanta, a federal judge this week ruled against Odyssey in a dispute with Spain over 17 tons of silver coins recovered from a sunken 19th century Spanish galleon, the Black Swan. Odyssey found the treasure off the Portuguese coast in 2007. It had requested a stay after a federal court in Atlanta ruled last year the explorers must give the treasure back to the Spanish government. In an order Tuesday, a U.S. circuit court judge denied the company's motion for a stay. AP photo (right) from 2007 shows Stemm examining Black Swan coins.


The shipwreck is considered one of the greatest underwater treasure troves of all time. Reports the Guardian newspaper: "A jubilant Spanish government announced on Wednesday that the $500 million worth of gold and silver coins found at the site...  would be back on Spanish soil within ten days."


-- Robert Trigaux, Business Columnist, Tampa Bay Times



[Last modified: Thursday, February 2, 2012 7:24am]


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