Wednesday, June 20, 2018

From shipwreck in Italy, a treasure now beckons

ROME — In the chaotic evacuation of the Costa Concordia, passengers and crew abandoned almost everything on board the cruise ship: jewels, cash, champagne, antiques, 19th century Bohemian crystal glassware and thousands of art objects, including 300-year-old woodblock prints by a Japanese master.

Now, a veritable treasure lies beneath the pristine Italian waters where the luxury liner ran aground last month.

Though some objects are bound to disintegrate, there is still enough to tempt treasure seekers — just as the Titanic and countless shipwrecks before have lured seekers of gold, armaments and other riches.

"As long as there are bodies in there, it's considered off-base to everybody because it's a grave," said Robert Marx, a veteran diver and the author of numerous books on maritime history, underwater archaeology and treasure hunting. "But when all the bodies are out, there will be a mad dash for the valuables."

The Mafia, he said, even has underwater teams that specialize in going after sunken booty.

The Costa Concordia was essentially a floating luxury hotel, and many of the passengers embarked with their finest clothes and jewels to parade them in casinos and at gala dinners beneath towering chandeliered ceilings.

On top of that was the massive wealth of the ship itself: elegant shops stocked with jewelry, more than 6,000 works of art decorating walls and a wellness spa containing a collection of 300-year-old woodblock prints by Katsushika Hokusai, a Japanese artist most famous for his work of a giant wave framing Mount Fuji in the distance.

The Italian coast guard said the company still legally owns the ship and the passengers own their sunken objects. So any treasure seekers would be breaking the law and subject to arrest — and the looted objects subject to seizure.

For now, the ship's wreckage has been impounded by authorities and is surrounded by rescue workers, cleanup crews and scientists. The coast guard said the ship is being guarded around the clock, and Civil Protection, the agency running the rescue effort, says it plans to remove the wreckage before looters can reach it.

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