Odyssey Marine confirm site of shipwreck containing 200 tonnes of silver 300 miles off Irish coast

As the BBC report, the US company Odyssey Marine Exploration have confirmed “the identity and location of the shipwreck site of the SS Gairsoppa nearly 4,700 meters below the surface of the North Atlantic, approximately 300 miles off the coast of Ireland in international waters.”

And if the historical records and research are correct, the wreck contains 7 million total ounces [200 tonnes] of silver.  Worth £600,000 when the ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sank in 1941, the silver hoard is estimated to be worth about £150 million at today’s prices.  And as the BBC report notes

The firm [Odyssey Marine] will retain 80% of the cargo’s value under the terms of a contract with the [UK] Department for Transport.

That’s cargo salvaged, but they’re “extremely confident that our planned salvage operation will be well suited for the recovery of this silver cargo.”  Odyssey Marine announced the awarding of the two year exclusive salvage contract by the UK government in January 2010.

Interestingly that contract was awarded 4 months after Odyssey Marine settled with the UK government in a dispute over 2 cannon they had recovered, working with the MOD, from the wreck of Admiral Balchin’s HMS Victory - a 100-gun first-rate ship of the line lost in 1744 in the English Channel.  A settlement which looked favourable for the UK government.  From the Odyssey Marine press release

“We look forward to cooperating with the MOD and other stakeholders in the archaeological management and preservation of Admiral Balchin’s HMS Victory,” commented Odyssey CEO, Greg Stemm from London, where he has spent the week meeting with UK officials. “I am pleased to announce that we have offered to forego part of our [$160,000] salvage award as a contribution of $75,000 to provide support to the National Museum of the Royal Navy to assist in realizing the historical, educational and cultural opportunities that the discovery of this important shipwreck offers to the public.”

I had noted the discovery of that particular shipwreck on Slugger at the time.  Although there’s been no subsequent mention of recovering the reported cargo of of four tonnes of gold coins that I can find.  Nor of any of the other 98 guns.

Browsing through the Odyssey Marine press archive brings an update on their previous big find.  Also mentioned in my earlier post

 Odyssey is currently being sued by the Spanish government over a previous treasure of “17 tonnes of silver coins plus a few hundred gold coins”, discovered at a wreck in 2007, and shipped to the US.

In response the Spanish government has repeatedly intercepted Odyssey vessels. Interestingly Odyssey are disputing Spain’s claim of ‘sovereign immunity’ for that wreck, also found in international waters.

The latest news on the Odyssey Marine website on the ‘Black Swan’ hoard, now identified as the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, a Spanish vessel that perished in 1804, is that they are still fighting a 2009 US court order which directed Odyssey to return the property to Spain.

Odyssey had also argued that sovereign immunity should not apply because Spain did not have possession of the recovered property, citing several cases requiring possession in similar admiralty cases, but the Court ruled that the FSIA does not require possession in order for a foreign country to claim immunity over its sunken warships. The appellate court also affirmed the trial court’s order which directed Odyssey to return the property to Spain, but according to the district court’s ruling, this order is stayed until the appeals process is complete.

“We are certainly disappointed by the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling,” said Melinda MacConnel, Odyssey’s Vice President and General Counsel. “We believe the U.S. Constitution and all other applicable laws give jurisdiction to the U.S. courts to determine the rights of Odyssey, Spain and all other claimants in this case. Furthermore, we believe this ruling contradicts other Eleventh Circuit and Supreme Court opinions.”

“While we were surprised by the ruling and are obviously not pleased with the opinion, there is no near-term economic impact on the company and our day-to-day business operations,” stated Mark Gordon, Odyssey President and COO. “Since the original adverse ruling in the ‘Black Swan’ case, we have developed numerous shipwreck projects and opportunities to move the company forward. We have been successful in working with other governments on shipwreck projects that determine a salvage award in advance and we’ve had some very promising results on several recent projects which we expect to confirm very soon.”

Which is where, I believe, we came in.  Btw, the provisional estimated value of those “17 tonnes of silver coins plus a few hundred gold coins” [$500m (£253m)] from the Mercedes was disputed by Odyssey Marine days after it was initially reported.

Just one other snippet of interest in the ‘Black Swan’ case, which doesn’t look good for Odyssey Marine’s chances of holding onto those coins since, according to Odyssey Marine

The United States filed an amicus brief in the case changing its previous position and supporting Spain in the “Black Swan” case by setting forth a re-interpretation of the language in the Sunken Military Craft Act (SMCA) to allow government-owned vessels on commercial missions to enjoy sovereign immunity.

And it involves WikiLeaks.  From an Odyssey Marine press release on 5 January 2011

Odyssey was named in several U.S. State Department cables obtained and recently released by the website WikiLeaks. The released cables suggest that the U.S. State Department offered special assistance to Spanish officials in the “Black Swan” case in exchange for assistance in acquiring a French painting confiscated by the Nazis during World War II and now on display in a museum in Madrid.

“We have brought to the Court’s attention the evidence suggesting that the involvement of the U.S. Executive Branch in the ‘Black Swan’ case goes beyond its interest in interpreting applicable laws. The U.S. Government’s interest appears to have been related to a promise of support for Spain in exchange for assistance in obtaining this painting for a U.S. citizen. This calls into question whether there may have been any other offers of support in exchange for favors completely unrelated to this case. Any interest in the case of the U.S. beyond those stated in their filing should warrant striking the amicus brief or at the very least, require a full explanation of the motives behind their support of Spain,” said Melinda MacConnel, Odyssey Vice President and General Counsel.

The US citizen involved doesn’t appear to be named.  But, to be fair, the description of the battle in which the Mercedes was sunk points to it being an armed Spanish Crown “Real Armada frigate”, albeit one carrying  goods and civilian personnel.  As this post on Fogbank Perspectives notes

Such an argument puts forward a red-herring: first, military missions for military vessels are not defined by what, and for whom, they carry within the protection of their hulls. Naval missions, e.g., military missions, are defined by orders emanating from a sovereign state, through its regular or auxiliary naval headquarters, and down through a clear military chain of command. Therefore, defining a military naval mission has nothing to do with cargo or manifests. Military missions, particularly naval missions, are determined by orders issued by the a state’s naval command to her naval assets. Such documents, in the case of Mercedes, have been made public by the Kingdom of Spain.

Indeed.

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  • Rory Carr

    Isn’t there any issue of the wreckage of SS Gairsoppa constituting a war grave and thus of its consequent inviolability?

  • http://joeharron@yahoo.com joeCanuck

    Rory,

    There should be but you know what they say about money talking.

  • Pete Baker

    You might well think that, Rory.

    But the UK government awarded the contract anyway. At the second time of asking…

  • Rory Carr

    I haven’t yet said what I think, Pete, I was merely asking if anyone else might know whether or not this particular wreckage had been nominated as a war grave and if it has, I was wondering if i is the the intention of the British government to say, “Screw ‘em ! They are only war dead, it’s the bullion that counts. ”

    I guess I can stop wondering now. (And everyone will have a pretty good idea what I think of it all).

  • casey1621

    Reference the wreck of the SS Gairsoppa being a war grave, the crew got off the ship in lifeboats however most of them died in the lifeboats before they could be rescued.