An Ohio judge has approved a deal that will allow Tampa treasure hunter Odyssey Marine Exploration to recover gold from a ship that sank 160 miles off the South Carolina coast in 1857.
Under the agreement approved by Judge Patrick Sheeran of the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas in Columbus on Wednesday, Odyssey Marine can begin working next month to recover gold bars and coins from the SS Central America, known as the Ship of Gold.
It's unclear how much gold is still in the ship but some estimates suggest there were thousands of pounds of gold aboard the ship. An ounce of gold currently sells for $1,351 an ounce.
The Central America was in operation for four years during the California gold rush before it sank after sailing directly into a hurricane in September 1857 in one of the worst maritime disasters in American history; 425 people were killed.
In 1998, shipwreck enthusiast and Ohio native Tommy Thompson led an expedition that found the vessel and recovered gold that later sold for $50 million to $60 million. Experts believe a significant amount of gold remains in the wreck.
Thompson has been described as a secretive Howard Hughes-like figure by an attorney on one of the cases. He has been a wanted fugitive since August 2012 after he failed to show up for a key court hearing involving the gold and was last seen at a mansion he was renting in Vero Beach.
The treasure became the subject of lawsuits. The litigation involved a group of Ohio investors who paid $12.7 million to fund Thompson's expedition but said they never saw any returns, and workers who said they weren't properly paid for signing confidentiality agreements to keep the ship's location and other information secret.
Odyssey was selected to continue the gold recovery effort by Ira Owen Kane, the court-appointed receiver. Kane is charged by the court with overseeing the recovery project, and has a permanent injunction and exclusive salvage rights over the SS Central America shipwreck granted by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern Division of Virginia.
Financial terms of the agreement were not made public, although court records say that Kane will get more than 50 percent of the recovered treasure, to be disbursed in part to the investors who financed the 1988 recovery.
"We circulated a request for proposals to nine of the leading organizations in the deep-ocean exploration and recovery industry and established a rigorous proposal evaluation process," said Kane. "We found Odyssey's combination of experience, equipment and personnel are unmatched in their industry and we're now looking forward to their team completing the work that was started more than 25 years ago."
Court records show that Odyssey Marine will advance the cost for the recovery. If the company fails to recover the treasure, it will absorb all the costs.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.