Recovered sunken treasure could be most valuable yet

Florida exploration company estimates worth in hundreds of millions

May 19, 2007|By Alan Zarembo and Karen Kaplan | Alan Zarembo and Karen Kaplan,Los Angeles Times

Deep-sea treasure hunters said yesterday that they have 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.

The hunters from Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc., a Tampa, Fla.-based company, said their haul has 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. The total could reach $500 million dollars, which would make it one of the most valuable sunken treasures ever discovered.

But some experts in nautical archaeology 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 archaeologist at Texas A&M University who specializes in shipwrecks, said he is skeptical of such early estimates, especially when so little information has been provided. "Very often, it's exaggerated because, of course, they need to get financial backers," he said.

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

Yesterday, its shares, which had been hovering around $4, shot up 80 percent to close at $8.32. It rose to $8.94 in after-hours trading.

Odyssey co-founder Greg Stemm said the company is being "relatively secretive" while it confirms the identity of the ship.

A spokesperson for the company stressed that because it is publicly traded, it can 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.

Court documents filed by the company say describe a wreck, found last summer 40 miles off the southwestern tip of England, was a 17th-century merchant vessel equipped with cannons. Stemm would neither confirm nor deny that the filings refer to new discovery.

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

They found the treasure using a deep-sea robot equipped with cameras.

The company provided a photograph of hundreds of large white plastic buckets stacked on wooden pallets in a warehouse.

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.

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 begun marketing them on a Web site, www.blackswanshipwreck.com.

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 Senora de Atocha, 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 archaeologist.

"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.

Alan Zarembo and Karen Kaplan write for the Los Angeles Times.

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