|From: Glenn Petersen||8/2/2014 2:42:51 PM|
|Out of Wreckage, Lives Emerge|
By WILLIAM J. BROAD
New York Times
JULY 28, 2014
A gold puzzle ring recovered from the wreckage of the S.S. Central America.
A treasure-laden ship that has lain silent on the Atlantic seabed for more than 150 years is giving up some of its secrets, as explorers who have revisited it for the first time in two decades detail in reports on their recovery operations. The sunken hulk, off South Carolina, has so far given up 45 gold bars, 47 pieces of gold jewelry, more than 2,000 gold coins and some 11,500 silver coins.
Other retrieved items, including a pair of glasses, speak of the lives lost. Eerily, the explorers found some 60 ambrotypes, a kind of early photograph on glass plates. The photographs, which are being left in the ship’s debris field until a conservation plan can be devised, portray miners and in one case a man and woman, their portrait set off by an oval mat.
The ship, the S.S. Central America, was steaming for New York in September 1857 when a hurricane sent it down with 425 people and tons of California gold aboard. The bones of the side-wheeler were discovered in 1988 more than a mile beneath the waves. But dreams of fabulous wealth fell apart as insurers and angry investors also filed claims.
After the original finder fled and became a legal fugitive in 2012, a court in Ohio appointed a receiver charged with recovering as much treasure as possible for creditors and duped investors. The receiver hired a company to revisit the shipwreck.
On April 15, the company, Odyssey Marine Exploration of Tampa, Fla., lowered a robot to the site and brought up five gold bars weighing 66 pounds — the metal alone is worth about $1.2 million, but could fetch even more as artifacts. The preliminary step opened a new chapter meant to raise the remaining treasure and explore the shipwreck.
To date, Odyssey has filed three monthly reports on its recovery efforts with the court-appointed receiver, Ira O. Kane, a Columbus, Ohio, lawyer and businessman. The legal action centers on Columbus because the ship’s discoverer who later fled the law, Thomas G. Thompson, made that city his base of operations.
Odyssey’s reports are laced with color photographs of the wreckage and treasure, on the bottom and in conservation. The largest gold bar recovered to date measures about 10 inches long and weighs roughly 22 pounds — worth about $415,000 as metal at current prices.
The jewelry includes a gold puzzle ring. Its six interconnected loops — as is usual for rings of this type, which jewelers devised centuries ago, often as wedding rings — come apart readily but are difficult to put together again, forming a mechanical puzzle of complex design. Its closure device features a motif of clasping hands.
“The gold gets the headlines,” Mr. Kane said in a statement. But the archaeological finds and scientific discoveries, he added, “will deliver significant educational benefits for years to come.”
Some of the thousands of gold and silver coins and early photographic plates found in the S.S. Central America, which sank off South Carolina in 1857. Credit Recovery Limited Partnership
A major find still lying on the bottom is a large iron safe, its door corroded after more than a century in briny seawater. The exploratory team directed its large tethered robot, equipped with a manipulator arm, to open the door.
The safe contained several packages, which the robot removed. Two small packets, tied with twine and sealed with red wax, “appear to be filled with paper” and have been put in safekeeping “until they can be opened and studied in a proper conservation laboratory,” a report noted.
Other items found in the safe include a pistol and two cotton garments wrapped tightly around gold coins and gold nuggets.
A pouch on one garment came open and produced a small fortune in gold coins known as double eagles, which had a face value of $20 apiece in the 19th century. Today, coins of similar provenance are sold online for $9,500 to $110,000 each. The pouch held 134 of coins.
Exploration of the debris field also yielded a sextant, a navigational device used to determine the angle between a celestial object and the horizon. The last of the three monthly reports said the instrument may have been used to fix the position of the Central America “until she sank.”
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|From: Glenn Petersen||12/1/2015 11:04:16 AM|
|Not specific to Odyssey:|
With Shipwreck Treasure Easier to Reach, a Duel Is On
By FRANCES ROBLES
New York Times
NOV. 30, 2015
Dan Porter, a Florida captain who led the expedition to find the galleon San José in the Gulf of Panama, surveying a site off South Carolina. Credit Travis Dove for The New York Times
MIAMI — The Spanish galleon San José was overloaded with 200 passengers and 700 tons of cargo on a summer night in 1631 when it smashed into a rock off the Pacific coast of Panama, spilling silver coins and bars into the Gulf of Panama. More than 400,000 coins and at least 1,417 bars were lost over a 40-mile trail.
Four hundred years later, that shipwreck has become one of the latest to land in a legal quagmire over who should have the rights to historic artifacts trapped under the sea. This one involves the United Nations, the United States Department of Homeland Security, the government of Panama and Americans accused of being pirates. At issue is whether private companies should be able to claim and profit from historic treasures
Those questions are of particular interest to businesses in South Florida at a time when technology is making it easier to find and recover sunken loot. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that there are over 1,000 shipwrecks in the Florida Keys alone.
Silver coins recovered from the San José at the Investigaciones Marinas del Istmo conservation lab in Panama. Credit Carol Tedesco
In the case of the San José booty, commercial treasure hunters, financed in part by an adventure entrepreneur who runs tours to the Titanic, spent over $2 million and 10 years recovering portions of the treasure, only to see their permits questioned and bounty confiscated.
“They called us thieves, looters, plunderers and pirates,” said Dan Porter, a Florida captain who led the expedition to find the San José. “That’s an insult. I hold this work in the highest regard.”
But the industry is engaged in a battle with academic marine archaeologists and Unesco, the Paris-based United Nations agency that tries to protect cultural treasures around the world. Critics say buried coins and loot should be studied and preserved in a museum, not sported around an investor’s neck.
“Treasure hunters are to maritime archaeologists what astrologers are to astronomers,” said Filipe Castro, a nautical archaeologist at Texas A&M University.
The Department of Homeland Security has opened an investigation into the case, and several criminal complaints are pending in Panama. Those actions underscore the perils that often accompany maritime salvage recovery, particularly as nations become increasingly sensitive to the cultural significance of underwater treasures.
In the colonial era, Spain sent fleets to the new world to excavate gold and silver from places like Bolivia and Peru, but hurricanes and other mishaps often sent ships and the gold they carried to unreachable depths.
Pirates and plunderers have long sought to recover them. As technology to find them has improved in recent decades, many legitimate companies have begun hunting, too, only to find their discoveries challenged in court.
Panama was so committed to preventing plundering that in 2003, it became among the first countries to sign a United Nations treaty protecting underwater cultural heritage. But at the same time, Panama’s Ministry of Economy and Finance granted a contract giving salvage rights along its waters to a company called Investigaciones Marinas del Istmo, or IMDI.
Investors included a former Panamanian governor; a Mexican-American engineer; Mike McDowell, an Australian adventure entrepreneur; and — for a different IMDI salvage project — Pat Croce, a former owner of the Philadelphia 76ers.
IMDI spent about 10 years fighting legal challenges. The company prevailed, and, with permits and court verdicts in hand, the subaquatic dig for the San José went on. Panamanian government inspectors supervised the project, and a “world class” conservation lab was built to log and preserve each discovery, the company said.
Among other items, divers found gold and diamond jewelry, pottery, and nearly 10,000 silver coins, worth up to $1,000 each. Only one 60-pound silver bar was recovered. Based on the contract, the government got to keep anything it considered historically relevant, plus 35 percent of everything else.
Some Panamanian government officials objected to the deal and brought in Unesco, which sent a task force to Panama to review the project. Excavation stopped. Even after the haul was divided and the government received its share, the country’s comptroller noted a number of irregularities in the contract, questioned its validity and requested an investigation into how it had been obtained.
A shipwreck coin expert, Carol Tedesco, examined coins recovered from the San José at the IMDI project lab. Credit Rojelio Garcia Boyd
“The government stopped us, even though we did everything by the book,” said Alberto Vásquez, an IMDI vice president.
This summer, when Mr. Vásquez emerged from a bank in Panama City where he had gone to retrieve some of the company’s share of coins that were stored in a safe deposit box, the government seized 3,000 coins, saying he did not have permission to transport it.
In September, Captain Porter, who led an expedition, returned to Florida with his 100 coins, worth about $500 or $600 each. The United States Border Patrol boarded his salvage vessel, searched it with dogs for six hours and confiscated the coins.
Citing an open investigation, Nestor J. Yglesias, a spokesman for Homeland Security Investigations, the criminal investigation arm of United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, declined to comment.
Panamanian government officials requested a list of questions from The New York Times, but did not respond to them, despite repeated requests.
Ulrike Guérin, who runs Unesco’s underwater culture program, said it was not up to the United Nations to determine the legality of IMDI’s contract, but she stressed that the agency was pleased to see Panama stepping up to stop treasure hunting.
Ms. Guérin said Unesco was trying to stop commercial salvagers around the world because they regularly destroy sites without giving any consideration to historical preservation or environmental damage. The divers take special care to preserve valuables such as coins, but disregard precious pottery if it looks too cracked to sell, she said.
“This is a fishy business of treasure hunting,” she said in a telephone interview. “I have not seen any case that was a success and everyone liking it. It ends up in a slaughter, destroying the heritage.”
James A. Goold, a lawyer in Washington, often steps in on Spain’s behalf when commercial shipwreck divers try to claim long-lost treasures, including some the government believes were fakes.
“These ships are time capsules that are irreplaceable and should be preserved for public benefit for study by cultural authorities and archaeologists,” Mr. Goold said.
In October, Mr. Goold sent notice to a Tampa company, Global Marine Exploration, which is looking for ships from a 1715 Spanish fleet lost in a hurricane, warning that Spain has not given up its rights to long-lost vessels. In 2009, a leading Tampa treasure-hunting company was ordered to return 17 tons of gold and silver from the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, which sank off Portugal in 1804.
Treasure hunters are hoping for a compromise.
“You should look at these more like an airplane crash or car crash,” said James J. Sinclair, a marine archaeologist hired by IMDI to evaluate the finds. “You don’t leave them at the side of the road and preserve them forever.”
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