Shipwreck treasure brings claims, rumors

Updated: 2007-05-22 09:04

TAMPA, Fla. - Deep-sea explorers who found what could be the richest-ever shipwreck treasure said Monday that the reaction to their discovery has overwhelmed them. Meanwhile, claims on the loot started coming in even as they were exploring new waters - television and movie deals.

In this photo provided by Odyssey Marine Exploration, Odyssey co-founder Greg Stemm, left, examines coins recovered from the 'Black Swan' shipwreck with an unidentified member of the conservation team Thursday, May 17, 2007, at an undisclosed location. [AP]

Odyssey Marine Exploration on Friday announced the recovery of more than 500,000 Colonial-era silver and gold coins possibly worth $500 million. The exploration company from Tampa has withheld details about the shipwreck, where it was found or even what kind of coins they had hauled back.

"We are overwhelmed by the worldwide interest in this project, and it reinforces our belief that shipwreck exploration hits a nerve with the public. I wasn't prepared for the response," Odyssey co-founder Greg Stemm said.

Stemm was in Los Angeles, where he was meeting with Disney representatives about possible projects for the large and small screens. Disney spokeswoman Cherise McVicar said the entertainment company began film discussions with Odyssey about a year ago, long before the company knew about the ship's treasure.

In England, the find generated press reports that Odyssey had salvaged the wreck of the long-sought British vessel Merchant Royal, which sank in bad weather off England in 1641.

In Spain, the government said it was "suspicious" of Odyssey's find, given that it recently gave permission to the company to hunt for the wreck of the HMS Sussex in the Mediterranean Sea. Culture Minister Carmen Calvo said his nation will claim the treasure if it turns out to be Spanish or was removed from Spanish waters

Odyssey said Monday that its "Black Swan" project was not the Sussex, which historians believed was laden with gold coins when it sank off Gibraltar in 1694.

Regarding the Merchant Royal, Odyssey did not confirm or deny anything.

"The 'Black Swan' bears characteristics of one shipwreck in particular, but some of the evidence gathered to date is inconsistent with our research, so we want to be sure of the identity before we announce it," the company said in a statement.

A federal judge in Tampa granted Odyssey exclusive salvage rights last week to an unspecified shipwreck site near the English Channel, about 40 miles off the southwestern tip of England. That is the area where historians say the Merchant Royal went down in 1641, and salvagers have been hunting it for years.

British newspapers reported Saturday that shipping records and witnesses indicate Odyssey's ships were working in the area last year, likely looking for the Merchant Royal.

Historians say the Merchant Royal took on water and sank while transporting loot from Spain to Belgium to pay the Spanish army stationed there at the time.

The Daily Mail in London asserted that the Merchant Royal treasure was "stolen by Americans," who secretly spirited it back to the United States to keep Britain from making a claim.

Odyssey said Monday that its recovery conformed with salvage laws, the site was beyond the territorial waters or legal jurisdiction of any country and the coins were legally exported to the United States.

"We do believe that most shipwrecks that we recover, including the 'Black Swan,' will likely result in claims by other parties," the company said. "Many will be spurious claims, but we anticipate that there might be some legitimate ones as well. ... It is the opinion of our legal counsel that even if a claim is deemed to be legitimate by the courts, Odyssey should still receive title to a significant majority of the recovered goods."

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