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