The reports of the discovery of the wreck of 18th Century 100-gun first-rate ship of the line HMS Victory, flagship of Admiral Sir John Balchen, in the English Channel by marine exploration company Odyssey Marine Exploration raise the prospect of also finding it’s reported cargo of four tonnes of gold and silver coins – now being estimated as worth anything up to $1 billion (0.79 billion). The Discovery Channel has footage of the retrieval of one of the cannons and other information, including a timeline. The New York Times reports that the initial discovery of the wreck identified as HMS Victory, lost at sea in 1744, was made last April and the LA Times reports that just two bricks and two cannons have been retrieved, so far. According to Odyssey’s press release
Odyssey has been cooperating closely with the United Kingdoms Ministry of Defence (MOD) on the project, and all activities at the site have been conducted in accordance with protocols agreed with MOD and Royal Navy officials. Terms of collaboration between Odyssey and the UK MOD on the project are currently being negotiated, and an agreement similar to the Sussex Partnering Agreement has been proposed.
However 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 Independent reports the argument – “Intrepid treasure hunters – or archeological vandals?”
And the Telegraph notes the reason for the focus on ‘sovereign immunity’.
The International Convention on Salvage 1989 ruled that shipwrecks found in international waters were, effectively, a free-for-all, as the ownership of treasure would be determined by whichever country it was taken to (and many countries operate a “finders keepers” policy).
But a crucial exception to this rule is the case of so-called sovereign immune vessels in other words, state-owned ships such as naval vessels (including the Mercedes). These remain the property of their home nation. In those cases, salvage crews must offer their loot to its original owner, which is obliged to pay them a handsome salvage fee of 50 to 80 per cent of its value.
It is this law which has caused controversy in the case of Victory, which remains the property of the Royal Navy. The Ministry of Defence is understood to have struck a deal with Odyssey, which will reward the company with a sliding scale of payments for the finds, including 40 bronze cannon, said to be worth £30,000 each (there has been no mention so far of the fate of the Portuguese gold, worth up to £700 million at today’s prices).
And the report adds..
All of which might sound entirely shipshape, if it weren’t for the small matter of the Unesco Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, which the Government agreed to abide by in 2005. The Convention states that sites should be left undisturbed wherever possible, and that any artefacts recovered should not be offered for sale.
According to the timeline at Discovery, the first report of the existance of the coinage on Victory appears to have been the Dutch financial publication, Amsterdamsche Courant, dated November 18/19, 1744 – “People will have it that on board of the Victory was a sum of 400,000 pounds sterling that it had brought from Lisbon for our merchants.”
The cargo is believed to have most likely consisted of gold coins minted in Portugal and Brazil, along with other colonial coinage.
Additionally, it is also believed that large quantities of both silver and gold coins were aboard Victory taken from enemy prize ships.
Adds A potential related, in terms of interest, post – “The Great Girona Gold Hunt”