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Gold coins in shipwreck

Odyssey Marine, the southern Florida concern that has found more coin treasurers than any other salver, has a new discovery as of Feb. 2.
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Odyssey Marine, the southern Florida concern that has found more coin treasurers than any other salver, has a new discovery as of Feb. 2: the wreck of HMS Victory, which sank in the English Channel on Oct. 4, 1744 taking 1,150 sailors and four tons of Portuguese gold to the bottom of Davy Jones’s locker.


About 200,000 gold coins are believed to be part of the treasure, whose sinking caused a major embarrassment to King George II in 1744, and whose recovery in 2009 could well become a cause celebre in international legal circles.

The wreckage of the HMS Victory, found below about 330 feet of water, may carry an even bigger jackpot than the $500 million in sunken treasure discovered two years ago off the coast of Spain.

Research indicates the HMS Victory was carrying 4 tons of gold coins when it sank in storm, said Greg Stemm, co-founder of Odyssey Marine Exploration, ahead of a Monday news conference in London.
So far, two brass cannons have been recovered from the wreck, Stemm said. The Florida-based company said it is negotiating with the British government over collaborating on the project.

“This is a big one, just because of the history,’’ Stemm said. “Very rarely do you solve an age-old mystery like this.’’

Thirty-one brass cannons and other evidence on the wreck allowed definitive identification of the HMS Victory, 175-foot (53-meter) sailing ship that was separated from its fleet and sank in the English Channel on Oct. 4, 1744, with at least 900 men aboard, the company said. The ship was the largest and, with 110 brass cannons, the most heavily armed vessel of its day. It was the inspiration for the HMS Victory famously commanded by Adm. Horatio Nelson decades later.

Odyssey was searching for other valuable shipwrecks in the English Channel when it came across the Victory. Stemm wouldn’t say exactly where the ship was found for fear of attracting plunderers, though he said it wasn’t close to where it was expected.

“We found this more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) from where anybody would have thought it went down,’’ Stemm said.

Federal court records filed by Odyssey in Tampa seeking the exclusive salvage rights said the site is 25 miles to 40 miles (40 kilometers to 64 kilometers) from the English coast, outside of its territorial waters. Odyssey Marine has previously discovered vessels with treasure that sailed under the flags of Spain, Peru, England and others.

In order to assert ownership, Odyssey Marine commenced an action in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, located in Tampa. The technical term is to “arrest” the vessel, a principal whereby the salver recovers some portion of the ship or its cargo and brings it before the court. In this case, it was a brass cannon.

The Victory – the same name was used for Lord Nelson’s shop at Trafalgar generations later – is only called an “Unidentified vessel” in the title of the complaint, the better to confuse those who might seek to take the treasure from under the noses of the competition – other treasure salvers.

Odyssey’s claims for salvage rights for other vessels were asserted under either international law of the sea or the law of salvage, which sometimes conflict. They are litigating against the Kingdom of Spain and Republic fo Peru over Spanish galleons found after a shipwreck in the 17th century.

English shipwrecks have a common law background, different from the civil law of Spanish countries, which reserve treasure to the sovereign – and provide that it cannot be salvaged without the consent of Her Majesty’s government. On another less important wreck, Odyssey got to keep 80 percent of the first $50 million in salvage value on a diminishing scale until above $500 million the profits would be split 50-50.

Under international maritime law and the law of the sea, going back to the time of Hugo Grotius in the year 1600, when an owner of a vessel abandons it, it may be claimed by anyone who finds it. When it is not abandoned, a wreck may be salvaged by anyone who claims it (“arrests” the wreck, in the arcane language of admiralty law).

They may not necessarily be able to keep the goods, but must be compensated for the salvage work that they have done – the payment can be quite liberal– if there is a right to work the vessel and its treasure in the first place.

In most instances, available technology at the time the ships surrendered to the depths limited the ability to salvage the ships, rescue persons or property. The situation with the Mercedes (another Odyssey litigation with Spain) is also similar to more than 600 other Spanish wrecks that are known to have populated the East Coast of the United States.

This very factor, and the wreck of other ships, prompted the U.S. Congress in 1987 to try and regulate control over the marine tragedies that took place inside the three-mile limit. Essentially, they were ruled to be owned by the United States, which in turn delegated the ownership to the individual states.

The Victory is located in the English Channel, about 60 miles from its last reported position – which solved a historical mystery – and Odyssey claims that no nation has the right to regulate who can salvage it. The British Foreign Office disagrees.

Regardless of the state or nation involved, the general principals of law are essentially the same. When sunken ships or their cargo are rescued from the bottom of the ocean by those other than the owners, courts generally favor applying the law of salvage over the law of finds.

“Finds” can be summed up by that childish taunt, “Finder’s keepers”.

Finds law is generally applied, however, where the previous owners are found to have abandoned their property. Abandonment must be proved to the Court’s satisfaction by clear and convincing evidence, typically by an owner’s express declaration abandoning title. (It can be proved indirectly through actions, too).

In some instances, a commercial shipments of gold may be insured, and the underwriters are usually asked to promptly pay the claims. The payment of the claims vests title to the gold in the underwriters, who can no more salvage the boat than the government can.

The position of the Department of State, as expressed in a Report of the House of Representatives in 1988 IS that “the U.S. only abandons its sovereignty over, and title to, sunken U.S. warships by affirmative act; mere passage of time or lack of positive assertions of right are insufficient to establish such abandonment”.

A 1902 treaty of friendship and commerce with Spain provided the key that the Court will look to: “Spanish vessels can ... be abandoned only by express renunciation. Both Spain and the United States agree that this treaty provision requires that in our territorial waters Spanish ships are to be accorded the same immunity as United States .

So the shipwreck of the century is headed to Tampa and court where it will all be sorted out in the coming months. Meanwhile, the salvers will be looking for the coins that they know are on board, under 300 feet of the English channel and many pages of history.

 The Associated Press contributed to this report.