History Hunters has long opposed the activities of Odyssey Marine, which we regard as questionable and harmful to our heritage and archaeological good practice.
Here is some of the media coverage.
Here is a statement of principle by one of the founding directors of Odyssey
November Issue 2000 - UNDERWATER MAGAZINE
The Claims of Spain - Death Knell for Shipwreck Exploration?
by Greg Stemm
One of the more controversial - and perhaps misunderstood - shipwreck issues that have surfaced during the past year is the legal saga of the shipwrecks of the Frigates Juno and La Galga. These two Spanish Colonial shipwrecks were lost off the coast of Virginia centuries ago, but are making headlines today. The headlines proclaim the end of commercial shipwreck exploration. But is that a valid conclusion?
As long as Americans have dreamt of the rich bounty of shipwrecks, Spanish shipwrecks were always the first to come to mind. Spain's exploration and conquest of the New World led to one of the largest transfers of wealth ever carried over the oceans of the world, which led to hundreds of shipwrecks laden with fabled riches. Along the coasts of the United States and throughout the Caribbean, explorers have spent their life savings - and their investor's money - chasing these lost fortunes of gold, silver, emeralds, pearls and other priceless objects.
Most of the earliest "treasure hunters", including Mel Fisher, Robert Marx, Burt Weber and a host of lesser-known divers and adventurers built their entire reputations and fortunes around the search for Spanish treasure. Even today, Spanish gold and silver are inseparable from the lore of shipwrecks.
Throughout the years of searches for these Spanish treasures, encapsulated in priceless underwater cultural sites, many have wondered why Spain has never laid claim to what could be considered her own riches. The commercial explorers generally had a good relationship with Spain, a friendly dialogue and exchange of cultural material and research was considered the rule rather than the exception. The research that ultimately led to the discovery of many Spanish shipwrecks was found in the archives of Seville, where researchers for commercial explorers were welcome. Presentations of artifacts were made to the Spanish Crown and the Spanish government appeared to give tacit approval to the excavation of her shipwrecks in the waters of the United States.
As trumpeted loudly in the press, it may seem to some that those days are now over. A Federal Appeals court in Virginia ruled this past summer that Spain owned the remains of two of her warships lost two centuries ago, the Juno and La Galga. Both were the victims of terrible weather, which perhaps was just the precursor to the legal storms that their losses have caused in the courtrooms of Norfolk.
Successful real estate investor and entrepreneur (turned shipwreck explorer) Ben Benson ploughed well over a million dollars into research and exploration that suggested that he had located the final resting place of both ships. His company, Sea Hunt, negotiated a deal with the State of Virginia that he believed was sufficient to enable him to go to work on these shipwrecks. All indications suggested that Ben intended to engage in a first-class archaeological excavation of the sites, which is one of the reasons that the State of Virginia was willing to negotiate a deal with Benson.
Having made his deal with Virginia, Ben was shocked when the US Federal Government and the Kingdom of Spain intervened in court to assert the sovereign rights of the Spanish Government, who claimed that the sunken frigates were theirs.
The ensuing court case and the recent appellate decision which sealed the issue - in Spain's favor (barring intervention by the Supreme Court) have apparently caught a lot of people off guard. The move by Spain has met with incredulity from many in both the legal and salvage community. Should they have seen it coming?
While it is easy to assume that Spain is motivated strictly by economic reward, hypothesizing that the country is seeking to fill her coffers with lost riches, I believe that the cost of managing the Spanish government's shipwreck resources around the world will potentially offset any windfall profits. Add up all the possible riches from Spanish sovereign shipwrecks and the total amount would hardly register in Spain's annual budget.
Consider instead that perhaps Spain is following a path being pursued by many countries today - searching the cultural horizon for historical insights into their own heritage, while attempting to manage their underwater resources for the benefit of future generations. There is a renewed interest worldwide in reclaiming the glorious past to restore a sense of pride in modern cultures that are hungry for meaning and national pride. Countries such as China, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Cyprus and others with ancient traditions of art and commerce are stepping forward to reclaim previously "exported" property from the museums of the world. Spain has made it clear that they have a real interest in setting up a program to properly manage their cultural resources, no matter where they lie in the world, as well as creating a strong historical link with coastal states in whose waters Spanish shipwrecks may lie. I would say that this has little to do with monetary value, and a lot to do with nationalism and self-respect.
Against this backdrop, the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, Russia and Spain have insisted that their rights to their own warships be recognized. These countries feel strongly that their sunken warships are government property and have not been abandoned, except in specific cases. Even at the negotiations of the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, these countries have stood steadfast in their belief that they should have the final say in the disposition and control of their sunken warships.
In backing the Spanish position, the U.S. Justice Department raised the ire of many salvors and engendered nationalist rhetoric. The critics of the Justice Department's support viewed it as a betrayal of American interests, and perhaps even a well-aimed salvo at the commercial shipwreck community.
The Justice Department, on the other hand, argued that they had backed Spain in order to ensure that Spanish warships were treated as sovereign property and "honored graves", and that they should not be subject to "exploration or exploitation" without Spain's permission.
As easy as it might be to see this as an anti-salvor initiative, there is likely a deeper, and much more significant political and diplomatic motive at work. It is no coincidence that the United States and the United Kingdom are strong supporters of respect for sovereign immune rights over warships, which of course would include not only shipwrecks, but lost planes, missiles and other implements of war, some that contain highly valuable and even top-secret military data. These countries jealously guard their lost military property at all costs, and extending the concept of protection of shipwrecks back 250 years is probably a collateral effect of this stringent policy.
Another issue of concern is the unauthorized disturbance of the final resting-place of servicemen and women lost on these ships and aircraft. There is significant debate over whether remains even exist on many of the sites; however the issue of war graves is not necessarily dependent on finding skeletons on a shipwreck.
Some might argue that protecting a 250 year old site could not possibly be a national security imperative nor disturbance of a grave site, but where does one draw the line? At UNESCO negotiations, members of the archaeological community have suggested that once a warship is 100 years old, it is no longer government-owned property; or at least that the coastal country in whose water it is found should have the rights to manage the shipwreck as underwater cultural heritage. For the most part, the Navy representatives advocating application of the concept of sovereign immunity aren't buying it�they want to make certain that any archaeologists or foreign governments don't interfere with the sites without their express permission. This is not just directed at salvors. It is this stance that suggests to me that perhaps the real issue at work here with the Juno and La Galga relates to the United States' desire to have their own property rights and war graves respected throughout the world. It is logical, therefore, that they would endeavor to show their respect for the warships of other countries. Very simply put, it's reciprocal diplomacy.
So that's all interesting, but here's the real question that keeps getting batted around by the media: Does this sound the death knell for the commercial shipwreck industry?
Hardly. As the line between archaeological contractors, shipwreck explorers and archaeologists continues to blur, I predict that the assertion of sovereign control of sunken warships throughout the world may actually serve to create a new industry. Spain has now taken the first step in asserting ownership of thousands of its sunken warships. With that assertion comes the responsibility for managing these sites as the important underwater cultural heritage properties they represent.
The same goes for the shipwrecks of the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom and many others who have lost military craft throughout the oceans of the world. Now that the Navies of these countries have asserted ownership and control, they will need to provide the infrastructure for management - and I will go out a limb and suggest that you can count on military funding long before the funding of cultural initiatives.
To the extent that these shipwrecks are in deep water (and many are), these governments will need to fund new deep technology for management, survey and excavation of these unique resources. In danger from the continued ravages of nature, inadvertent damage from industry and fisheries will provide the call to action that prompts the dedication of funds.
The net result? We may see a reduction in some "no cure-no pay" projects where investor's money is put at risk in hopes of finding a government shipwreck that will pay off in huge multiples. But these traditional shipwreck operations may very well be supplemented by contracting arrangements that may not have a huge payout, but will be a good steady business - the kind that underwater contractors build can build an industry around.
There is a widely held perception that this change will have a negative effect on commercial shipwreck exploration. Perhaps, however, it heralds a new era of growth for legitimate business interests and private sector shipwreck exploration. In change lies opportunity, especially for those willing to consider new paradigms. Without any doubt, we are going to see lots of changes on the legal and political horizon for shipwreck resource management in the near future; the decision on the Juno and La Galga is most likely just the tip of the iceberg. Those that are willing to adapt will likely find interesting opportunities. Those that are betting against change may be left behind.
The United States Federal Court has recognized that Spain now owns her sovereign shipwrecks in the waters of the United States. Unless there is a reversal of the Appellate court's decision by the Supreme Court, this opinion will serve as an important legal precedent throughout the United States. Every federal agency, and perhaps even every state, can be expected to seek Spain's input before permitting access to sunken Spanish warships. This is the perfect time to reach out and provide technical solutions to the resource management challenges that will be faced by the Kingdom of Spain. Let's offer to help manage their property, and build a sound, ethical and long-term business in the process.
©2000 Greg Stemm
Note his ending:
Every federal agency, and perhaps even every state, can be expected to seek Spain's input before permitting access to sunken Spanish warships. This is the perfect time to reach out and provide technical solutions to the resource management challenges that will be faced by the Kingdom of Spain. Let's offer to help manage their property, and build a sound, ethical and long-term business in the process.
Then ask: how does this fit with subsequent actions?
All the leading professional and academic bodies concerned with maritime heritage have condemned the proposed salvage of 'treasure' from the purported site of HMS Sussex, by Odyssey.
COUNCIL FOR BRITISH ARCHAEOLOGY SLAMS GOVERNMENT TREASURE HUNT
Press Release , issued 8th October 2002
The Council for British Archaeology(1) today voiced their extreme concern about a commercial treasure hunting contract between the UK Government and an American underwater salvage company to recover bullion from the 17th century wreck off Gibraltar which the salvors belive to be that of HMS Sussex (2). Through this deal the British Government are engaged in a joint venture selling antiquities to pay for an investigation of doubtful archaeological feasibility, while also lining its own pockets and those of a foreign company(3). The wreck is said to be under threat from several salvage companies wanting to get their hands on the booty, though few have the technical expertise required to recover such deeply sunk material. The CBA fears that Governments all over the world will now be pressurised to sign up to similar or worse deals, putting their own underwater heritage, as well as Britain’s, at peril.
Commenting on the recently signed deal, Dr Francis Pryor, President of the Council for British Archaeology said:
“This is getting UK heritage policy into some very murky waters. It is Public Private Partnerships gone mad. It contravenes UK commitments to international conventions(4),(5) as well as basic principles of the Government’s own heritage policy(6). If you applied these principles to on-land archaeology it would drive a coach and horses through hard-won foundations of responsible heritage management."
The CBA believes that instead of promoting – and benefiting from – commercial treasure hunting under the guise of archaeology, Britain should sign up to the UNESCO Convention on Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage(5) and use the nearby naval base at Gibraltar to develop and demonstrate ways in which governments might patrol and monitor their historic wreck sites in international waters. This would do far more to promote better international collaboration to protect the underwater heritage in international waters.
George Lambrick, Director of the CBA said:
“This is a blatant piece of heritage asset stripping. It is saying to the rest of the world ‘if the price is right, come on down’. We now have to question whether the British Government have any real commitment to protecting British and international underwater heritage across the world’s oceans, or are just in it for the money(7).
“It is questionable, to say the least, whether a government agency responsible for selling off defence equipment should be in charge of such a sensitive heritage issue(8). If the Government believes this deal is ethical, it should publish full details of the agreement and its policy in this matter(9).”
Notes for editors
1. The Council for British Archaeology is an educational charity that promotes knowledge, appreciation and care of the historic environment for present and future generations on a UK-wide basis. It has an institutional membership of over 500 heritage organisations encompassing the state, professional, academic, museum and voluntary sectors at national and local level, and c.10,000 subscribing individuals of all ages.
The CBA facilitates a number of committees and other bodies that bring experts together to advise on heritage policy, including the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee with 17 NGO members (including the CBA) and 7 observer bodies from Government.
2. The deal is for the salvage of bullion from HMS Sussex, which sank on its way to provide British financial support to the Duke of Savoy during the war against Louis XIV in 1694. The treasure that went down with her is alleged to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars on the open market. The wreck is also likely to contain human remains of the sailors lost with the vessel. The wreck is understood to be in waters that are disputed as being either Spanish or International. It is over 2,500ft down and can only be investigated using robots. It is not proven that properly recorded archaeological investigation is feasible for an ancient vessel of this age at this depth using current remote technology.
3. The British Government has signed an agreement with Florida based "Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc.". The deal recognizes the UK as the owner of the wreck but entitles the commercial salvage company to a share of the proceeds of the artifacts sold from the salvage operation, rising from 40% to 60%, depending on value. The Government has committed itself to joint marketing for the sale of artifacts, together with handing over exclusive rights to merchandise traded under the name HMS Sussex in return for a royalty. All UK Government expenses are to be paid from the sales of artefacts or commission on merchandise – or failing that, from a deposit of £250,000 made by the salvage company.
4. The UK ratified the Council of Europe’s Valletta Convention on Protection of the Archaeological Heritage in 1999. The explanatory text of the Convention states explicitly that “excavations made solely for the purpose of finding precious metals or objects with a market value should never be allowed”.
5. The UK Government has been in international negotiations concerning the world-wide UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage which seeks to outlaw commercial exploitation of the underwater cultural heritage. It has not ratified it because of concerns over issues of sovereign immunity for military wrecks in international and territorial waters, and because the breadth of protection offered was considered administratively too burdensome. But the Government has explicitly endorsed the principles of the Convention, including the procedures set out in its Annex (see appendix below for details). The United States (the parent state to the salvage company) is not a member of UNESCO.
6. Under the Treasure Act the Government is prepared to reward finders of precious metals and some other artifacts discovered on dry land – usually up to the full market value of the find – in order to secure it for deposition in a museum for the benefit of the public. The Government does NOT seek to profit itself from the sale of antiquities on the international market, nor fund archaeological research through the sale of antiquities.
For Highways and other PPPs it applies very strict rules to its contractors to ensure they abide to basic principles of undertaking archaeological research to record threatened sites for the public benefit: they are not to allowed to benefit by selling off antiquities for private gain. Under planning conditions designed to protect the archaeological heritage, developers are strongly encouraged to deposit finds and records as a publicly accessible archive, not to sell off antiquities in order to make money.
7. The protection of wrecks in international waters – and of foreign nation’s military or national ships within other countries’ territorial waters – is poorly regulated, which is why UNESCO has sought to develop an international convention on the subject (see above). The arrangement adopted in this deal could set a precedent that could be used not only to legitimise the exploitation of other countries’ wrecks for commercial gain, but is also likely to jeopardize British wrecks in the territorial waters of other countries. This is particularly likely to apply to countries with weak underwater heritage laws and/or a need for ready cash. Britain is likely to end up with little or no say, and even less moral influence on such deals. Britain has made good progress in recent years recognizing the international problem of archaeological sites being severely damaged by illicit excavation, fuelled by the international market in antiquities – but that cause would be set back indefinitely if the HMS Sussex approach were to be adopted to ‘save’ sites threatened by terrestrial treasure hunters.
8. The agreement has been negotiated and established by the Ministry of Defence’s Disposal Services Agency. The Department for Culture Media and Sport is responsible for International heritage policy. Under its statement The Historic Environment: A Force for our Future (DCMS/DTLR 2001) the Government is committed to ensuring that the historic environment comes within the remit of Green Ministers in relation to departmental policies and of Departmental Design Champions in relation to management of Government-owned assets.
9. But it seems very unlikely that the Government will publish any details: a brief note of the terms of the confidential agreement has been published by Odyssey (http://www.shipwreck.net/pam/) which states “This Memorandum sets forth the principal terms of a confidential agreement titled "Agreement Concerning the Shipwreck HMS Sussex" (the "Agreement"). This Memorandum is qualified in its entirety by the Agreement.” The memorandum states that the detailed terms of the actual agreement (including all archaeological provisions under it) are covered by a confidentiality clause.
Contact: George Lambrick (Director) or Alex Hunt (Research and Conservation Officer), Council for British Archaeology, St Mary's House, 66 Bootham,
APPENDIX – Details of UNESCO Convention on Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage
The preamble for the Convention, includes the following within the rationale for the Convention:
"Deeply concerned by the increasing commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage, and in particular by certain activities aimed at the sale, acquisition or barter of underwater cultural heritage,..."
Article 2, subsection 7 states: "Underwater cultural heritage shall not be commercially exploited"
In the Annex to the Convention – which the Government has endorsed –
Rule 1 states: The protection of underwater cultural heritage through in situ preservation shall be considered as the first option. Accordingly, activities directed at underwater cultural heritage shall be authorized in a manner consistent with the protection of that heritage, and subject to that requirement may be authorized for the purpose of making a significant contribution to protection or knowledge or enhancement of underwater cultural heritage.
Rule 2 states: The commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage for trade or speculation or its irretrievable dispersal is fundamentally incompatible with the protection and proper management of underwater cultural heritage. Underwater cultural heritage shall not be traded, sold, bought or bartered as commercial goods.
This Rule cannot be interpreted as preventing:
(a) the provision of professional archaeological services or necessary services incidental thereto whose nature and purpose are in full conformity with this Convention and are subject to the authorization of the competent authorities;
(b) the deposition of underwater cultural heritage, recovered in the course of a research project in conformity with this Convention, provided such deposition does not prejudice the scientific or cultural interest or integrity of the recovered material or result in its irretrievable dispersal…."
Rules 4 states:
Activities directed at underwater cultural heritage must use non-destructive techniques and survey methods in preference to recovery of objects. If excavation or recovery is necessary for the purpose of scientific studies or for the ultimate protection of the underwater cultural heritage, the methods and techniques used must be as non-destructive as possible and contribute to the preservation of the remains.
Rule 5 states: Activities directed at underwater cultural heritage shall avoid the unnecessary disturbance of human remains or venerated sites.Rules 9, 10, 11, 22 and 23 require investigations to be carried out under a properly authorized project design, under the supervision of properly qualified persons with appropriate scientific credentials and executed by individuals all of whom have to be able to demonstrate competence appropriate to their roles in the project.
OME Press statements:
January 12, 2006
Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. (AMEX: OMR), a leader in the field of deep-ocean shipwreck exploration, confirmed the Company had marine radio communications yesterday with the Guardia Civil based in Andalucia, Spain, while conducting archaeological operations on the site believed to be HMS Sussex.
The Master of the Odyssey Explorer was requested, via ship-to-ship radio transmissions, to appear in Spain to make a statement, apparently relating to the operations of the Odyssey Explorer. However, according to Odyssey's legal counsel in Spain, neither the ship nor the Master of the vessel fall under the jurisdiction of the authorities that delivered the request.
The Odyssey Explorer, Odyssey's 251' deep-ocean archaeological platform, continues to work on the site believed to be HMS Sussex pursuant to the project plan as presented to all appropriate government authorities in Spain, the United States and the United Kingdom. Odyssey maintains that all activities are being undertaken legally and pursuant to all relevant authorizations necessary for the continuation of these operations. The Company believes that interference with these lawful operations from any entity without jurisdiction would be illegal.
Greg Stemm, Odyssey's co-founder, stated "We respect international law and have continued the Sussex project based on the official communications that have taken place between the relevant governments and transmitted to Odyssey. We believe we are in good legal standing with all the competent governing authorities that have jurisdiction in this matter, and we intend to continue operations on the shipwreck believed to be HMS Sussex. We are concerned that a significant amount of false and misleading information has been furnished to the Spanish media. Nevertheless, we are steadfast in our resolve to conduct the Sussex excavation according to the approved project plan while attempting to address all reasonable concerns by relevant authorities."
January 27, 2006
If analysis of this evidence supports the presumption that the site is the Sussex, that data will be incorporated into a second report as required in Phase 1B, and submitted to HMG for comment and approval. Upon approval of the archaeological report by HMG, the report will be provided to the Spanish government pursuant to the initial diplomatic communication (nota verbal) issued by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs on July 28, 2005.
A subsequent nota verbal was communicated to Odyssey through the same diplomatic channels on January 26, 2006, requesting that Odyssey suspend operations until the Junta of Andalucia appoints an expert to observe operations on the site believed to be the Sussex. It was further declared that the Junta did not appoint an expert because the Junta believed that Odyssey was working without appropriate authorization and that the Project Plan presented by Odyssey did not comply with the applicable Andalucian legislation as requested by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
When operating in territorial waters of any country, the Company has always done so with the appropriate authorizations. In the case of the Sussex project, because of regional sensitivities over the issue of the territorial status of the waters, and in accordance with diplomatic requests, the Company's agreements of cooperation were made without prejudice to any jurisdictional claims relative to the territorial status of waters. Thus, the assertion of any claim to those waters or the assertion of any rights based on such claims, is not consistent with the diplomatic discussions relative to the project.
Odyssey did, in fact, submit a Project Plan to the Spanish Government through diplomatic channels that was believed to comply with all applicable requirements. In good faith, the Company began operations on the Sussex after submission of the Project Plan and subsequent assurance by the Spanish Government through diplomatic channels that failure of the Junta to appoint an expert to join the operation would not be considered a failure of Odyssey to comply with the cooperative agreement pursuant to the nota verbal. In addition, assurances were provided to Odyssey through diplomatic channels as recently as January 13, 2006 that there would be no interference with operations relating to the Sussex.
The recent nota verbal from Spain appears to be a contradiction of that position, and the Company trusts that the inconsistency has resulted from ambiguity and possible miscommunications relative to jurisdictional issues. In the interest of maintaining a cooperative situation, Odyssey is currently preparing to resubmit the archaeological project plan through diplomatic channels to the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In addition, an invitation has been extended again to have an expert from Andalucia join the expedition.
March 26, 2007
The Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has Issued a Press Release indicating the successful conclusion of negotiations relating to HMS Sussex
Spain sues Odyssey Marine
Nation files claims against three wrecks found by treasure hunters.
By SCOTT BARANCIK
Published May 31, 2007
Spain filed suit Wednesday against Tampa's Odyssey Marine Exploration, and not just over a 17th-century shipwreck it promised to claim earlier this week.
Maritime lawyer James Goold said Spain filed claims against three wrecks the Tampa treasure-hunting company has discovered: an Italian-registered passenger boat found last year in the Mediterranean, an unidentified vessel located in March west of Gibraltar, and a 17th-century ship -- code-named "Black Swan" -- whose rich yield of 500, 000 silver coins this month drew international attention and nearly doubled Odyssey's stock price.
"Spain's legal action this week is based on the same legal principles that resulted in the return of all materials in the Juno and La Galga case, " said Goold, an attorney with Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C. In the Juno case, also argued by Goold, a U.S. court ordered a salvage company to return the treasures it removed from two 18th-century Spanish frigates without that country's authorization. Spain believes the so-called Black Swan may have sunk in 1641 while under contract with the King and carrying Spanish funds.
It's not clear how strong a legal case Spain may have. Odyssey spokeswoman Natja Igney said it is premature to assess the merit of Spain's Black Swan claim without knowing the ship's identity and added that Odyssey expects to reap a substantial salvage award regardless of who claims it. "You are playing right into the hands of lawyers that are trying to sensationalize a straightforward legal proceeding, and further encouraging this type of behavior, " she said.
But combined with Spain's involvement over a fourth shipwreck - its Andalucia region continues to stymie Odyssey's efforts to excavate a ship it believes to be the 17th-century British warship HMS Sussex, which may have sunk with cargo worth billions of dollars today - the country's multipronged interventions threaten to prolong Odyssey's cash crunch by delaying the conversion of treasures into actual revenues.
According to its most recent financial report, Odyssey began 2007 with just $2.4-million in cash and burned through $4.7-million during the first quarter. What saved it was a complex $6.6-million equity transaction with some of its top shareholders. Last June, Odyssey refinanced the $1.8-million mortgage on its Tampa headquarters with a $2.5-million loan.
Igney, the company spokeswoman, said Odyssey won't have to seek financing for several months, thanks to $7.7-million generated this month when a shareholder exercised some warrants. Still, cash crunches are nothing new at Odyssey, which seeks to be the first publicly traded shipwreck-recovery company to generate consistent earnings.
In prior years, the company sold stakes in specific wrecks or issued them to contractors in lieu of cash. The company's first major find, the U.S. Civil War-era SS Republic in 2003, generated an unprecedented $75-million in revenues that nevertheless were swiftly consumed by Odyssey's multiple search-and-recovery projects.
Under U.S. District Court rules, Spain has 20 days to issue a specific response to each of Odyssey's three shipwreck claims.
Odyssey's stock fell five cents Wednesday to $6.80 per share. Since leaping 81 percent to close at $8.32 on May 18, the day it announced its Black Swan find, the company's stock price has fallen 18 percent.
Scott Barancik can be reached at [email protected]
or 727 893-8751.
[Last modified May 30, 2007, 22:53:55]
Spain forces treasure ship into port in battle over fortune in pieces of eight
· Fear that Americans have seized national heritage
Paul Hamilos in Algeciras
· Florida court to rule on 'commercial archaeology'
Wednesday October 17, 2007
The Odyssey Explorer, a ship belonging to US deep-sea explorer firm Odyssey, is led into the port of Algeciras. Photograph: Jose Luis Roca/AFP
A Spanish warship forced a US treasure hunting vessel back into port at gunpoint yesterday as it tried to leave Gibraltar in the latest episode in a battle over what is claimed to be the world's largest recovery of treasure from the sea.
The Odyssey Explorer, a 250ft salvage vessel, was trying to leave Gibraltar, where it had been effectively blockaded for three months after Spain claimed a share of millions of dollars worth of gold and silver coins it had recovered. After setting sail, it was approached by a Spanish navy gunboat and civil guard patrol ship once it passed the three-mile "buffer zone" that surrounds Gibraltar and forced to turn round and head for the Spanish port of Algeciras. "We were forced at gunpoint to come to Algeciras," said Ali Nessar, a company representative on the boat.
Following a stand-off, the boat was boarded and searched for information that Spanish authorities hope could lead to the site of the treasure.
The captain of the Odyssey Explorer, Sterling Vorus, was arrested last night for disobeying orders and was facing the night in jail.
The row centres around Odyssey Marine Exploration, run by Greg Stemm, the world's leading underwater treasure hunter. His company trawls the ocean's floors, looking for sunken treasure, which it then sells to collectors. Founded in 1994, its first major success came with the recovery of $75m worth of booty from the SS Republic, which sank off the coast of Florida in 1865. But now it has come up against the Spanish government in a diplomatic tussle that is costing the company millions of dollars in lost revenue.
In May Odyssey spirited away what it subsequently claimed were $500m worth of silver and gold coins that it found in international waters in the Atlantic Ocean. The coins were flown out of Gibraltar airport and are now sitting in an undisclosed location in Tampa, Florida, where Odyssey is based. The Spanish government believes they were transported with the complicity of the British and that the coins may belong to Spain. Odyssey and the governments of Britain and Gibraltar deny any foul play, saying that Odyssey flew the treasure out from the airport in full compliance with customs requirements.
Spain has filed a suit in Tampa against Odyssey to clarify the details of its discovery, to prevent future recovery efforts and to claim back what has already been discovered. But the company refuses to reveal specific information about the treasure, admitting only that it was found around 180 nautical miles west of Gibraltar. Mr Stemm argues that as "custodians" of the site - which Odyssey has named the Black Swan - they have a responsibility to protect it from other interested parties, including potential treasure hunters.
Mr Stemm says Odyssey is keen to "learn the name of the ship from which we removed the treasure," but that they may "never be able to establish [its] identity". Spain counters that the company's lack of transparency reveals their intention to make a financial profit from its national heritage. The coins are believed to be Spanish, but Odyssey argues that this does not necessarily mean that they came from a Spanish ship. The Spanish "real de a ocho" (piece of eight) was the international currrency of the day and could have ended up on any shipwreck, says the company, which has invested millions of dollars in their recovery.
There is debate over the value of the coins. In export licence applications made to Gibraltar in May the company valued the 500,000 coins at $2.5m (around $5 per coin), but in a press release put out by Odyssey in June, they said the coins may be worth $500m, or $1,000 per coin, making it the world's largest shipwreck recovery. Odyssey said it was not responsible for the higher valuation, based on calculations by an independent numismatist. But they did publicise the higher figure.
Spanish media reports suggest the boat from which the coins were recovered is the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, which sank off the coast of Portugal in 1804 after a battle with British warships. Down with it went more than 1m silver coins, plundered from Spain's American colonies. The treasure has entered into Spanish lore as the world's greatest sunken booty and the idea that it might have been whisked away has incensed politicians and journalists.
The battle is unlikely to be resolved on the high seas, but in the Tampa courtroom. Odyssey describes its work as "commercial archaeology" and says that, as the treasure was found in international waters, it should keep 90% of the proceeds. Spain's lawyer, James Goold, counters that "Spain has not abandoned its sunken property and it does not permit unauthorised salvage".
From The Sunday Times
June 24, 2007
Stop, that’s our treasure, Spain tells Britain
IT WAS billed as the shipwreck find of the century with £250m of treasure recovered from a sunken 17th-century vessel lost off Land’s End.
But the landmark discovery is now at the centre of an international legal battle amid claims that the haul has come from another ship which sank 1,000 miles away.
At stake for the salvage company that recovered the treasure is 17 tons of silver coins. It claims ownership rights because it says the wreck is owned by no state and was found in international waters.
The treasure, said to be the most valuable such haul ever found, is reported to have come from the 366-year-old Merchant Royal, which sank near the Isles of Scilly. It was known by some as the “El Dorado of the Seas” for its long-lost cargo of riches.
However, the Spanish government is taking legal action against the salvage company, Odyssey Marine Exploration, because it suspects the treasure has actually come from the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a 36-gun Spanish frigate that went down off the Portuguese coast en route from Montevideo to Cadiz. The Mercedes, which was sunk by British Navy ships in October 1804, was known to be carrying more than a million silver dollars.
The Spanish government’s suspicions have been aroused by the discovery that in April Odyssey filed a claim for salvage rights in the US courts over an unidentified 19th-century wreck said to be approximately 100 miles west of Gibraltar.
It is this ship which the Spanish government believes to be the Mercedes. If that is confirmed, the financial repercussions for Odyssey could be disastrous. As a warship, the Mercedes would have sovereign immunity under international maritime law. This means that both it and its cargo remain exclusively the property of Spain. By contrast, salvagers of nonstate owned ships can expect to be awarded up to 90% of their find.
Last week lawyers acting for the Spanish government put motions before a US court demanding that Odyssey reveal all the information in its possession about the identity and contents of the wreck.
(Follow the above link to read the rest of the article.)
LEXPRESS.fr du 30/10/2007
L'odyssée du chasseur d'épaves
De notre envoyé spécial Gilbert Charles
Un navire arraisonné par l'Espagne, un trésor sous la garde de la justice en Floride... Le mystérieux butin découvert par la société américaine Odyssey Marine Exploration est au cœur d'un imbroglio international.
«C'est notre agneau sacrificiel: une offrande aux Espagnols pour calmer leur colère», plaisante Sterling Vorus, capitaine de l'Odyssey Explorer, en désignant le robot sous-marin arrimé sur le pont de son bateau, à quai dans le port de Gibraltar. L'agneau est à moitié désossé: on lui a retiré ses pièces les plus précieuses, ses bras articulés et ses caméras, car il risque d'être saisi par les autorités espagnoles. C'est en effet cet engin télécommandé qui a servi à remonter, en avril, le trésor du «Black Swan» (Cygne noir), nom de code d'une mystérieuse épave découverte par la société américaine Odyssey Marine Exploration (OME). Une épave dont les responsables de la firme se refusent toujours à révéler la localisation et l'identité.
Persuadés que les 500 000 pièces d'or et d'argent du «Black Swan» proviennent de leur patrimoine maritime, les Espagnols ont déclaré la guerre à Odyssey. «Ces gens se comportent comme des pirates», s'est indigné le ministre de la Culture, César Antonio Molina, furieux que le trésor ait été exporté en catimini vers les Etats-Unis à partir de l'aéroport de Gibraltar, la colonie britannique avec laquelle son pays est en conflit larvé depuis... 1713!
En mai, les avocats de Madrid ont déposé un recours auprès du tribunal de Tampa (Floride), pour faire valoir leurs droits sur la cargaison du «Black Swan», pendant qu'un juge de la région de Cadix délivrait un mandat interdisant à la firme de fréquenter les eaux espagnoles. Résultat: voilà près de six mois que l'Odyssey Explorer, son navire ultramoderne, est bloqué à Gibraltar.
Vestiges très disputés
L'Unesco estime à 3 millions le nombre d'épaves englouties à travers le monde. Moins d'un millier d'entre elles renfermeraient assez d'objets de valeur pour rentabiliser leur renflouement. Depuis 2001, l'Organisation des nations unies a élaboré une convention qui prévoit de sanctionner l'extraction illégale et le commerce des vestiges. Problème: alors que ce texte doit être signé par 20 Etats pour entrer en vigueur, seuls 15 pays l'ont ratifié à ce jour. L'Espagne l'a signé mais prépare, parallèlement, une loi européenne. La France, elle, ne l'a pas signé. «Ce texte a le défaut de ne pas reconnaître le pays du pavillon du navire, c'est-à-dire le propriétaire légitime, comme le prévoit la loi française depuis Colbert», explique Michel L'Hour, conservateur en chef du patrimoine au département des recherches archéologiques subaquatiques et sous-marines du ministère de la Culture. Toute épave découverte dans les eaux françaises doit être déclarée aux affaires maritimes, chargées d'identifier le propriétaire. A défaut, l'épave est vendue et l'argent, versé aux invalides de la Marine. Le sauveteur n'a droit, lui, qu'à une indemnité calculée en fonction de ses frais.
Le matin du 16 octobre, une activité fébrile règne pourtant sur la passerelle, où l'équipage s'apprête à appareiller, sous l'oeil d'une quinzaine de journalistes européens et américains invités à bord. Quelques jours auparavant, l'attachée de presse d'OME a appelé L'Express pour une proposition a priori alléchante. «Nous allons tenter de forcer le blocus espagnol et nous serons probablement arrêtés par les gardes-côtes. Voulez-vous être des nôtres?» La tentation était grande de refuser, car l'opération n'avait rien d'une première: en juillet, un autre navire d'Odyssey, l'Ocean Alert, avait déjà été arraisonné par la marine espagnole alors qu'il tentait de quitter Gibraltar. Mais l'occasion était trop belle d'essayer d'en savoir plus sur le «Black Swann». Nous avons donc accepté.
La veille du départ, une réunion de préparation est organisée dans un hôtel de Gibraltar. Première déception: Greg Stemm, le fondateur et directeur d'Odyssey, celui qui a localisé et remonté le trésor, est absent. L'attachée de presse, Natja Igney, et un responsable local de la société OME, Aladar Nesser, refusent de fournir la moindre information sur l'épave. Habileté ou manœuvre? «Nous n'avons toujours pas d'éléments permettant d'identifier le vaisseau avec certitude et nous ne voulons pas nous lancer dans des spéculations susceptibles de donner prise à toutes sortes de revendications», lâche juste Natja Igney.
Les Espagnols n'ont pas confisqué le robot
Les journalistes apprennent ensuite que, pour des «raisons de sécurité», la sortie du bateau prévue le lendemain a été annoncée aux autorités espagnoles. Mieux: celles-ci disposent déjà de la liste des «invités». L'opération n'a donc rien d'une surprise. La présence des médias apparaît clairement motivée par le double souci de faire parler d'OME et d'adoucir le comportement des forces de l'ordre en les plaçant sous les objectifs des caméras...
C'est donc avec l'impression de jouer les boucliers humains dans une bataille navale d'opérette que les journalistes embarquent. Tout se passe comme prévu: une corvette de la marine espagnole et une vedette de la Guardia civil attendent à la sortie du port. Une équipe de télévision américaine filme la scène depuis un Zodiac. Sitôt franchie la ligne des 3 milles nautiques constituant la limite des eaux territoriales de Gibraltar, les bâtiments espagnols ordonnent au capitaine de se détourner vers Algésiras. Celui-ci refuse, sur les conseils d'une avocate et d'un huissier espagnols appointés par OME. Après un quart d'heure de palabres et de menaces, il finit par obtempérer. Une heure plus tard, nous voici à Algésiras. Une escouade de policiers monte à bord. Les journalistes sont fouillés et délestés de leurs films et mémoires d'appareils photo avant d'être relâchés. Le capitaine, mis en examen pour refus d'obtempérer, passera la nuit en prison. Trois jours plus tard, le 19 octobre, l'Odyssey Explorer, dûment fouillé, repart pour une destination inconnue. Avec son robot, que les Espagnols n'ont même pas daigné confisquer...
Cette lamentable opération médiatique a au moins eu le mérite de mettre en lumière les méthodes de cow-boy d'Odyssey, une entreprise cotée en Bourse à New York et souvent présentée comme une success story. Fondée en 1994 par deux businessmen, Greg Stemm et John Morris, OME n'a commencé à dégager des bénéfices qu'en septembre 2003, avec la découverte du trésor du Republic, un steamer américain coulé au large de la Géorgie (sud des Etats-Unis) à la fin de la guerre de Sécession. Quelque 50 000 pièces d'or et d'argent avaient été retrouvées à cette occasion. Leur vente sur le marché des numismates - au compte-gouttes, pour ne pas faire chuter leur valeur - rapporte environ 7 millions de dollars par an à OME, soit l'essentiel de ses revenus. L'entreprise affiche malgré tout des pertes colossales: pour les six premiers mois de 2007, elle a déclaré un passif de 10,5 millions de dollars, lié notamment aux dépenses pour la recherche du «Black Swan» et à l'immobilisation de ses deux navires et de ses équipages. A court de liquidités, OME survit grâce à une récente prise de participation du fonds de pension américain Fortress qui lui a apporté 7 millions de dollars.
Les chasseurs de trésors avaient fondé beaucoup d'espoir dans une autre épave mythique, localisée depuis 1999: celle du Sussex,navire amiral de la flotte britannique qui a coulé en 1694 au large de Gibraltar, avec une cargaison d'or évaluée à près de 1 milliard de dollars. Or, selon le droit international maritime, ce navire de guerre appartient au gouvernement britannique. En 2001, les responsables d'Odyssey ont donc entamé des négociations avec le ministère britannique de la Défense, avec lequel ils ont signé, deux ans plus tard, un protocole d'accord prévoyant de leur octroyer 40% de la valeur de la cargaison si celle-ci dépasse 500 millions de dollars, les 60% restants revenant au royaume. Seul hic: le Sussex se trouve dans une zone maritime revendiquée par... l'Espagne!
Les mystérieux lingots du «Black Swan»
Après des années de tergiversations, les autorités madrilènes et celles de la région d'Andalousie ont fini par donner leur accord, en mars 2007, et la fouille de l'épave devait commencer dans le courant de l'été. Mais les opérations ont été annulées en mai, à la suite de l'affaire du «Black Swan», et il y a très peu de chances pour que les navires d'Odyssey puissent s'approcher de la zone de naufrage du Sussex avant très longtemps.
Dernier espoir pour la firme de se renflouer, le trésor du «Black Swan» est actuellement sous la garde des juges de Tampa, siège social d'Odyssey, en attendant que ses propriétaires soient juridiquement reconnus. Les 17 tonnes de monnaies (notamment des ducats et des pièces de huit espagnoles) ont quitté l'Europe en toute discrétion: à bord de deux avions partis de Gibraltar le 10 avril et le 16 mai 2007. Les licences d'exportation précisent que le trésor a été découvert «dans les eaux internationales de l'Atlantique, hors de la juridiction de tout pays».
Il a fallu attendre le 18 mai pour que cette découverte soit annoncée par un communiqué de presse. Depuis, toutes sortes de rumeurs circulent sur l'identité de l'épave. Des spéculations alimentées par le mutisme des responsables d'OME. Ces derniers ont déposé en novembre 2006 auprès du tribunal de Tampa trois arrests(déclarations de découverte) pour des épaves dont ils revendiquent les droits exclusifs et parmi lesquelles figure forcément le «Black Swann».
Le premier arrest concerne le SS Ancona, un paquebot à vapeur italien coulé en 1915 par un U-Boot allemand. Cette piste peut être écartée, car le navire en question ne transportait pas de numéraire.
Le second arrest vise le Santa Maria de las Mercedes, une frégate espagnole coulée en 1804 par la marine britannique devant les côtes portugaises alors qu'elle rentrait d'Amérique du Sud chargée d'or, d'argent et de bijoux. La troisième hypothèse est celle du Merchant Royal, un navire anglais coulé en 1641 au large de la pointe sud de la Cornouaille alors qu'il convoyait des pièces et des lingots envoyés par le royaume d'Espagne pour payer son armée stationnée dans les Flandres.
Le Merchant Royalserait-il le bateau dont OME cache l'identité sous le nom de «Black Swan»? Selon Henri Germain Delauze, le fondateur de la Comex, entreprise marseillaise spécialisée dans l'ingénierie sous-marine, qui fut actionnaire et membre du conseil d'administration d'Odyssey entre 2004 et 2006, cela ne fait aucun doute. «J'ai découvert l'épave du Merchant Royalen 2001 au large de la pointe sud-ouest de l'Angleterre, raconte-t-il. J'y ai trouvé des défenses d'éléphant et des canons, mais aucune trace de monnaies. J'ai vendu sa position à Greg Stemm, le PDG d'Odyssey, contre une promesse de 100 000 dollars qu'il ne m'a jamais réglée. J'ai appris par la suite qu'à l'époque du naufrage, le trésor du navire, dont la coque fuyait, avait été transbordé dans une grosse chaloupe qui avait dérivé avec 85 hommes à bord avant de couler quelques milles plus loin. Greg Stemm a été plus malin que moi: il a cherché dans les parages et trouvé le butin dans les restes de cette chaloupe. Cela explique qu'il ait autant de difficultés à identifier formellement l'épave car elle ne porte aucun signe distinctif.»
Tout comme le gouvernement espagnol, l'industriel français a décidé de déposer un recours auprès du tribunal de Tampa dans les prochaines semaines. La reconnaissance de la propriété du «Black Swan» s'annonce donc très mouvementée. Les dirigeants d'OME ont-ils fait preuve de trop de légèreté, voire d'arrogance, notamment face aux Espagnols? La réponse se trouve en pointillé dans les changements intervenus ces derniers jours à la tête d'OME: un nouveau PDG, Mark Gordon, vient de remplacer le fondateur, Greg Stemm, apparemment mis sur la touche.
From The Sunday Times
November 4, 2007
Sunken treasure ‘overvalued to lift shares of salvage firm’
AN underwater salvage company that claimed to have discovered $500m (about £250m) of sunken treasure in the Atlantic has been accused of inflating the value of its find, so boosting its share price and providing a bonanza for its executives.
The allegation comes amid disclosures in stock exchange documents that some of the bosses of Odyssey Marine Exploration cashed in millions of dollars of shares within days of announcing their recovery of 17 tons of silver coins from the wreck.
Other papers show that the Florida-based company privately estimated the worth of the silver coins at £1.2m. A few days later it claimed publicly that the coins had been valued at more than 200 times that amount.
The identity and ownership of the ship have since become the subject of a court battle and Odyssey has issued a defamation action against Jim McManus, a diver and a director of a UK-based historical website and internet blogger from Florida.
He is one of several people in the online maritime community to suggest that the company pushed up its share price by overstating the value of the find.
Following an announcement by Odyssey to the media on May 18 that it had discovered 500,000 silver coins, the company’s share price rose to more than triple its April value as speculators piled in.
Media reports put the valuation of the hoard at about £250m. On May 21 Odyssey issued another press release saying that the figure had come from estimates provided by a coin expert retained by the company and that it was “comfortable” with his calculations.
Instead of retaining the shares once a formal valuation had been carried out and their entitlement to the treasure confirmed, several Odyssey executives and board members started offloading their stock from May 22.
Shortly afterwards, ownership of the treasure was challenged in the Florida courts by the Spanish government, which believes it came from a Napoleonic-era warship, the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes. That ship was sunk by the British off the Portuguese coast in 1804 while carrying more than 1m silver dollars.
(Follow the above link to read the rest of the article.)
Santiago Mata James Mata
Madrid. Treasure hunters of Odyssey entered twice in the Moroccan port of Tangiers in last April, precisely during the ten days that took off positioner GPS satellite AISLive, ie at the time that extracted most treasury. The information obtained from the authorities in the port of Tangier, held by the Minister of Culture, Cesar Antonio Molina, who will present today in Brussels the facts before his colleagues in the EU. Given the delicate state of relations between Spain and Morocco, it is foreseeable that Molina wants to prevent the discovery of these data mean throwing more fuel on the fire.
Everything points to Odyssey kept in Tangiers the most compromising of the 17 tons of treasure from a ship which gave the name of Black Swan, and valued at 500 million dollars at present it publicly in Tampa (Florida), 18 May. In addition to the two entrances of oceanographic ship Odyssey Explorer in April, the port of Tangier record number of entries Ocean Alert, which served as a cargo ship, between January and April.
Links to originals in Spanish
El ‘Times’ acusa a Odyssey de sobrevalorar el tesoro para inflar su valor en bolsa
Odyssey almacenó durante un mes en Tánger más de dos toneladas del tesoro
La UE incluirá a Odyssey en una “lista roja” de cazatesoros, por iniciativa de España
Un juez de Cádiz mantiene imputados a los españoles que destaparon el caso Odyssey