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Shipwreck yields $500M haul - Richest shipwreck treasure?

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« on: June 01, 2007, 09:16:03 pm »

Spain’s hidden treasure
Juan Francisco Alonso

The “Odyssey” case has raised concern about the many galleons full of silver and gold lying at the bottom of the sea

The modern day search for the sunken wreckage of the “HMS Sussex”, which went down on February 19th 1694 with a significant booty in its bowels, has being going on for several years. During this time maritime law expert, journalist and writer, Lorenzo “Pipe” Sarmiento, has been close on the trail of Odyssey Marine Exploration, and their activities in the Straits of Gibraltar in a number of different vessels. However the US firm continued to be one step ahead and in 2006 they reached an agreement with the British Navy concerning the search for the Sussex and also gained authorisation from the Spanish Foreign Ministry to “survey and identify without disturbing sand, always in the presence of archaeologists from the Junta de Andalucía”.
This authorisation was something of a surprise as it is normally the regional government’s jurisdiction to grant this type of permit. Nevertheless Odyssey arrived with their giant underwater robot and moved plenty of sand without the presence of an archaeologist. What they found may not have been the Sussex but the photographs released once their booty had been taken back to the USA looked like a corner of Ali Baba’s cave: 17 million tons of silver valued at 500 million dollars, taken from a spot somewhere between Estepona, Gibraltar and Sotogrande, according to the AISlive satellite used by Sarmiento; or from international waters, according to Odyssey’s version.

Xavier Nieto, director of the Underwater Archaeology Centre of Cataluña, claims that the apparently unexplainable permit from the Ministry is the result of the neglect suffered by this area of Spain’s culture. “Spain’s underwater archaeology work has arrived late on the scene”, he explains. “Other Mediterranean countries started in the 1950s; we started in 1981 and now we are worse off than we were then. Four centres were set up but with scarce financial and human resources. There are fewer than a dozen professional archaeologists working with this huge heritage, there is no specific university training, except for the odd isolated short course, and a clear legal problem. The 1985 law, which likens underwater archaeology to archaeology on dry land, was not very realistic”.

Nieto goes on to say that the Andalusian coastline is exceptional. “The House of Trade for the Indies was set up in Seville in 1503 and all the galleons sailing from America passed through there. Furthermore the entrance to the Bay of Cadiz is very dangerous and that caused a lot of accidents”.

Gonzalo Millán del Pozo, the writer and director of the Poseidon Project (a group that aims to protect the underwater cultural heritage), speaks of more than 800 sunken galleons with cargoes that could be worth more than a hundred thousand million euros.

An immense booty waiting to be found, or historical and cultural heritage? Carmen García Rivera, coordinator of the Andalusian Underwater Archaeology Centre (CAS) based in Cadiz, clearly prefers the second description. “Our mission is not to recover treasure but to investigate, protect and preserve heritage where it is”. In its first decade the CAS has tried to draw up a thorough archaeological map of Andalusian waters - so far it includes 80 sites - as a step prior to investigation.

Finders keepers?

Carmen García Rivera believes that technological advances ought to serve to protect sunken wrecks and fight against looting. This evidently has not been the case if the Odyssey’s find was made in Spanish waters. This American firm, whose value on the stock market doubled after its million dollar find had been announced, seems to prefer to take the “finders, keepers” attitude.

This recent case will most probably end up in court. On Wednesday the Spanish Government filed a lawsuit in a federal court in Tampa, Florida, (where Odyssey Marine Exploration is based) to block claims by the US treasure hunters to Spanish property recovered from shipwrecks. The Ministry of Culture continues to call the Odyssey’s find, code-named “Black Swan”, suspicious. Odyssey had not commented on the lawsuit at the time of going to press.

There are precedents. In 2001 the Spanish claim to ownership of Spanish vessels sunk in American waters was upheld by the US supreme court. This followed the finding of the remains of the “Juno”, shipwrecked in 1802, by a private firm.
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