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General: £250m pirate treasure 'stolen' by Americans

Posted on 24.05.2007 - 07:00 EDT in GENERAL NEWS by Rons_ROV_Links

£250m pirate treasure 'stolen' by AmericansThe treasure hunters who recovered gold and silver worth an estimated £250 million from a shipwreck off Cornwall spirited their haul to the United States in an apparent attempt to stop Britain staking a claim.

In a highly secretive operation, American firm Odyssey Marine Exploration worked on the wreck of an English ship, believed to be the 17th Century Merchant Royal, less than 40 miles from the British coast.

But Odyssey carefully avoided landing their treasure on UK soil.

If the 17 tons of coins, gold ornaments and tableware had been brought ashore, Odyssey would have been obliged to inform the Government's Receiver of Wreck, which would probably have impounded the haul, triggering a potentially lengthy legal row about ownership rights.

Instead, the trove was secretly moved to the tax haven of Gibraltar. Odyssey then chartered a jet to take hundreds of plastic containers brimming with coins to the United States on Thursday, where they have been analysed by Nick Bruyer, an expert in antique coinage.

  The treasure found by the Zeus ROV  
  The treasure found by the Zeus ROV  

He said: "The find is unprecedented. I don't know of anything equal or comparable to it."

Salvage companies have spent years looking for the wreck of the Merchant Royal, known as the 'Eldorado of the seas', which sank in bad weather near the Isles of Scilly in 1641.

Under salvage law, Odyssey could get up to 90 per cent of the haul's value, although this may depend on whether other claimants come forward. With the treasure now on American soil, it is highly unlikely that Britain will seek a share of it. But experts believe that, as the cargo originally belonged to Spain, its government will have a better case.

However, there may be individual claimants to deal with. The personal fortune of the Merchant Royal's captain, John Limbrey, which he accrued through years of trading in the Caribbean, was believed lost when the ship sank in bad weather. At least one of his descendants is already understood to be making enquiries.

Odyssey's three salvage ships have been working to find the wreck site for two years, yet it was only last Wednesday that a US federal judge granted the firm exclusive salvage rights.

Court records show that the company, based in Miami, believed that it had discovered the remains of a 17th Century merchant vessel.

Odyssey, which used remote-control submarines - known as remote operation vehicles (ROVs) - to dive on the wreck, has remained silent about exactly where the treasure was found, or indeed which ship it came from.

The firm only revealed that the haul - codenamed Black Swan and containing 500,000 silver coins, hundreds of gold coins, worked gold and other artefacts - was discovered beyond any nation's territorial waters and in an area where many ships had gone down.

Shipping records show a period of intense activity at the end of last summer, when all three Odyssey ships - Odyssey Explorer, Ocean Alert and LEspoir - were regular visitors to Falmouth docks.

Pilot Captain David Barnicoat was employed by all three ships on several occasions during 2005 and 2006, steering them in and out of Falmouth Bay. He said: "You couldn't sound the crew out. They were tight-lipped about everything.

"Other vessels would spot them off the Isles of Scilly flying "keep clear" signals, but they were working a huge area and you couldn't begin to guess the wreck location.

"I've been wondering for a long time when they would find the big one."

Crew members were also seen drinking in dockside bars around Falmouth, but when curious locals inquired about their activities any conversation was cut short.

Matt Reay, who runs The Front bar on Falmouth quay, said: "The crew weren't very forthcoming about what was going on. In fact, they kept their mouths shut.

"Knowing what we know now, you can understand why."

At another retreat popular with mariners, Rumours Wine Bar, proprietor Pat Harding said: "Some of the crew came in here a year ago. We worked out that they were looking for an important wreck but they just wouldn't talk about it."

Wreck expert Richard Larn, whose book Shipwrecks Of The British Isles is the definitive Lloyds of London reference manual, said he discussed the Merchant Royal with Odyssey co-founder Greg Stemm two years ago.

Mr Larn said: "He admitted that he was looking for the Merchant Royal but wouldn't say where he thought she was.

"Basically, his ships have been mowing up and down the ocean around the Isles of Scilly for two years.

"They would have found about 1,000 targets - including fishing vessels and wartime wrecks - and they must have checked out each one. This would have cost £50,000 per day. You are talking huge sums of money and you can see why they play their cards so close to their chest." 

  Hunters have already recovered 17 tons of 17th-century gold and silver coins from the wreck - codenamed the Black Swan - worth at least £250million  
  Hunters have already recovered 17 tons of 17th-century gold and silver coins from the wreck - codenamed the Black Swan - worth at least £250million  

A spokesman for the Receiver of Wreck, part of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, said: "We have not been informed of any large treasure hoard being landed in the UK."

Although Odyssey Marine Exploration has insisted its loot was found in international water last night Kendall McDonald, a wreck expert, cast doubt on the claim.

He said: "I expect it could have been found elsewhere. They were careful to say she was 40 miles off Land's End, but she was meant to be about 25 miles out.

"There's a possibility it could be closer in than that but they want to put the possibility of it being in British waters out of reach."

How the Merchant set sail to disaster

The 700-ton Merchant Royal was built in Deptford, London, in 1627.

Owned by English merchants, she set sail from the Spanish colonies of San Domingo, in the West Indies, captained by John Limbrey.

In January 1637, armed with 32 bronze canons, she arrived successfully in Cadiz, southern Spain, where she rested until 1640.

But during that time she began to leak badly and underwent extensive repairs.

The following summer, a ship employed to transport Spain's colonial loot - silver coins, ingots and gold - caught fire.

The bullion had been put aside to pay for Spain's 30,000 strong army, which were stationed at the time in Flanders.

Captain Limbrey volunteered to take the gold to Antwerp, on his way back to London.

The Merchant Royal set sail in late August 1641, trailed by her sister ship, the Dover Merchant.

But during the journey she began to leak and rescuers were unable reach her in time.

Eighteen men drowned and 40 crew, including Capt Limbrey, had to be rescued by the Dover Merchant.

The loss of the treasure made headlines. Back in 1641, the ship;s hold was equivalent to one-third of the national exchequer.

Samuel Pepys refers to the event in his diary and proceedings in the House of Commons were interrupted for the news to be announced.

Several salvage teams have sought to recover her treasure over the years but all have failed until now.

There was confusion as to where she had actually gone down, with conflicting eyewitness reports.

Original papers relating to her final resting place state that witnesses on another ship calculated that it sank ten leagues (around 35 miles) from Land's End.

But experts insist they would have been too far out to actually see land.

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