Claim of deep-sea trea­sure called murky

Large sums but few de­tails sur­round a colo­nial-era ship­wreck.

Los Angeles Times - - The World - By Alan Zarembo and Karen Ka­plan

Deep-sea trea­sure hunters said Fri­day that they had re­cov­ered what could be a record haul of gold and sil­ver coins from a colo­nial-era ship­wreck — but their fail­ure to pro­vide many de­tails has set off a galleon-sized con­tro­versy over their claims.

The hunters from Odyssey Marine Ex­plo­ration Inc., a Tampa, Fla.-based com­pany, said their haul had so far to­taled about 17 tons of coins, more than 500,000 in all.

Each coin could bring be­tween a few hun­dred and sev­eral thou­sand dol­lars, ac­cord­ing to an ex­pert who eval­u­ated some of them at the com­pany’s re­quest. If the coins were worth an av­er­age of $1,000 each, the to­tal could reach $500 mil­lion, which would make it one of the most valu­able sunken cov­ered.

But some ex­perts in nau­ti­cal arche­ol­ogy were quick to cast doubt on the value of the booty.

“There is no such thing as $500 mil­lion on any wreck in the world,” said Robert Marx, a vet­eran trea­sure hunter. “Any­body who says so is . . . ly­ing.”

Ge­orge Bass, an arche­ol­o­gist at Texas A&M Univer­sity who spe­cial­izes in ship­wrecks, said he was skep­ti­cal of th­ese types of early es­ti­mates, es­pe­cially when so lit­tle in­for­ma­tion had been pro­vided by the com­pany.

“Very of­ten it’s ex­ag­ger­ated, be­cause of course they need to get fi­nan­cial back­ers,” he said.

Odyssey Marine Ex­plo­ration is un­usual in the trea­sure­hunt­ing world: It is a com­pany whose stock is pub­licly traded on the Amer­i­can Stock Ex­change.

On Fri­day, its shares, which had been hov­er­ing around $4.60, shot up 80% to close at $8.30. It rose to $8.94 in af­ter-hours trad­ing.

Odyssey co-founder Greg Stemm said the com­pany was be­ing “rel­a­tively se­cre­tive” while it con­firmed the iden­tity of the ship.

A spokes­woman for the com­pany stressed that be­cause Odyssey was pub­licly traded, it could not dis­tort the value of its dis­cov­ery.

“If we were to in­flate the value of a find like that, we would be in se­ri­ous trou­ble,” said Laura Bar­ton, vice pres­i­dent of com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Since Septem­ber, the com­pany has filed a se­ries of mo­tions in U.S. Dis­trict Court for the Mid­dle Dis­trict of Florida seek­ing the rights to an “uniden­ti­fied, ship­wrecked ves­sel.”

The doc­u­ments say the wreck was found last sum­mer 40 miles off the south­west­ern tip of Eng­land. The ship was a 17th cen­tury mer­chant ves­sel equipped with can­nons.

Stemm would not say whether the fil­ings re­ferred to the new dis­cov­ery.

The com­pany an­nounced the find with scant de­tails, ex­plain­ing that the wreck was found in in­ter­na­tional wa­ters some­where in the At­lantic. They co­de­named the site Black Swan.

Stemm said his­tor­i­cal records showed that sev­eral ships sank in the same re­gion.

The trea­sure was found us­ing a deep-sea ro­bot equipped with



dis- cam­eras.

The com­pany pro­vided a pho­to­graph of hun­dreds of large white plas­tic buck­ets stacked on wooden pal­lets in a ware­house. Each bucket is num­bered and la­beled with the weight of its con­tents. In the fore­ground, an 18kilo­gram bucket is open to re­veal shiny sil­ver coins.

Rare-coin ex­pert Nick Bruyer re­cently trav­eled to in­spect the coins as they were go­ing through the con­ser­va­tion process and de­clared the size of the find “un­prece­dented.” The coins spanned sev­eral decades and were ex­cep­tion­ally well pre­served, he said.

Af­ter ex­am­in­ing dozens of them, he con­cluded that some could be worth as much as $4,000. The finest spec­i­mens “could bring record-break­ing prices,” said Bruyer, founder of As­set Mar­ket­ing Ser­vices, Inc. in Burnsville, Minn., who has done work for Odyssey in the past.

Bruyer and Stemm re­fused to give the na­tion­al­i­ties of the coins, but Odyssey has al­ready be­gun mar­ket­ing them on­swan­ship­, a spe­cial web­site.

It is not the first dis­cov­ery for the com­pany. Odyssey Marine Ex­plo­ration was founded in 1994 by Stemm and John Mor­ris, who be­lieved that mod­ern tech­nol­ogy would make it pos­si­ble to re­cover valu­able ship­wrecks in deep wa­ters, where they had been largely undis­turbed for hun­dreds of years.

The com­pany went pub­lic in 1997, us­ing money from in­vestors to fi­nance its dis­cov­ery ef­forts.

Progress was slow, but in 2002 the com­pany signed an agree­ment with the gov­ern­ment of the United King­dom to ex­plore the wreck­age of the Sus­sex, an English war­ship that sank off the coast of Gi­bral­tar in 1694. The gold on­board has been es­ti­mated to be worth hun­dreds of mil­lions. Odyssey and the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment will split any pro­ceeds.

In 2003, the com­pany be­gan to re­cover coins from an­other wreck, the steamship Repub­lic, which sank off the coast of Ge­or­gia in 1865. Odyssey has sold a third of the coins so far for a to­tal of $33 mil­lion, Stemm said.

Still, the com­pany

lost $19 mil­lion last year, ac­cord­ing to a fil­ing with the Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion. Stemm said it cost $1.5 mil­lion a month to keep Odyssey’s re­search ves­sels work­ing.

Black Swan could put the com­pany way into the black — and into the record books. The big­gest pre­vi­ously re­ported find was the 1985 dis­cov­ery of Nues­tra

a Span­ish galleon loaded with gold, sil­ver, gems and jew­elry that sank off the coast of Florida in 1622. When it was lo­cated by famed trea­sure hunter Mel Fisher, the value of its cargo was es­ti­mated at $400 mil­lion.

But that fig­ure is also hazy. Fisher’s com­pany is private and has never dis­closed how much it has ac­tu­ally brought in, ac­cord­ing to Bass, the arche­ol­o­gist.

Trea­sure hunt­ing is by na­ture a se­cre­tive world, com­pris­ing a hand­ful of com­pa­nies.

“In this busi­ness, we all hold our cards pretty close to the chest,” said Scott Heim­dal, pres­i­dent of RS Op­er­a­tions, a trea­sure-hunt­ing com­pany based in Peo­ria, Ill.

Even by those stan­dards, Odyssey is with­hold­ing more than usual, crit­ics said.

“So much is kept se­cret it is hard to know what they have,” Bass said.

Marx, who has writ­ten dozens of books about ship­wrecks, said Odyssey could have dis­closed a rough lo­ca­tion and date of the wreck and the na­tion­al­ity of the coins to sat­isfy skep­tics with­out jeop­ar­diz­ing the find.

He also raised the is­sue of whether com­pet­ing le­gal claims for the trea­sure could emerge. In­ter­na­tional laws gov­ern­ing ship­wrecks are com­plex and in many cases give rights to the coun­tries that orig­i­nally owned the ves­sels.

Stemm said the com­pany was well within its rights to scoop up those tons of coins be­fore all the le­gal ques­tions were set­tled.

He com­pared the sit­u­a­tion to find­ing a wal­let filled with cash but lack­ing iden­ti­fi­ca­tion to trace its owner.

“Do you have a right to pick that up and bring it to the po­lice sta­tion?” he said. “That’s the same thing. We were walk­ing along and we found a wal­let with 17 tons of sil­ver.” alan.zarembo@la­ karen.ka­plan@la­

Odyssey Marine Ex­plo­ration

COINS: Greg Stemm, left, looks at coins his com­pany re­cov­ered from the sea. He is with an uniden­ti­fied con­ser­va­tion team mem­ber. Senora de Atocha,

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