The Cut-throat World of Treasure Hunting

Some explorers intent on salvaging treasures lost at sea will stop at nothing, says New Yorker writer John Colapinto.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

Treasure hunting used to be different back in the day. You used to need an eye patch and a map with a big X on it. You said all your Rs like a pirate, like arrrrgyle socks, and "Goonies" never said die. Things were simple.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Then, yes. Nowadays, you use underwater robots to search shipwrecks. Then you remain extremely secretive about what you find, telling the media that it's worth millions of dollars, but not telling anyone where it is or what country you think the treasure is from. Then you end up in a dispute with the country that says it's their ship you found and their treasure.

STEWART: That's the story one treasure company is having, anyway. Odyssey Marine Exploration, last May, it announced it had found a ship called the Black Swan with millions of dollars in treasure on board. But Spain says it's one of its old war ships and the booty belongs to Spain.

In January, a court ordered Odyssey to reveal the wreck's location and share info about the artifacts it found. Share it with, too, Spain. Ownership of coins already pulled from the wreck? Still in dispute.

MARTIN: The Black Swan is the latest, but by no means the first, controversy for Odyssey. It's headed up by John Morris and Greg Stemm. John Colapinto wrote about Odyssey for the New Yorker this week, and he joined us yesterday in our studio to tell us the odyssey of Odyssey.

(Soundbite of interview)

MARTIN: Who are the modern-day treasure hunters? Who are these people?

Mr. JOHN COLAPINTO (Writer, New Yorker): Well, you know, the modern-day ones are guys like Greg and John, Greg Stemm and John Morris, that are kind of corporate. Like, they're super-corporatized guys, you know, with logos on their shirts that say "Odyssey Marine Exploration" and kind of bland offices that could be an insurance company. And they're very - the talk the lingo of Wall Street and they're in, you know, with hedge fund managers. And it's all very - and they have these huge deep-sea robots, so it's all very corporatized.

MARTIN: It's business.

Mr. COLAPINTO: It's a business now.

MARTIN: What are - if you don't mind explaining some of the cloak-and-dagger details of this Sussex story? This was something you were very heavily involved in, the research and investigating. Describe to us how you pursued this story.

Mr. COLAPINTO: There was this extraordinary find called the HMS Sussex, and it was a British warship that reportedly went down with one million pounds sterling on it. And Odyssey told these wonderful stories about this bribe that was being paid to the Duke of Savoy who was in the south of France.

Odyssey said that they learned that the Sussex was sailing out to bring his bride, and they hit a storm and sank. Now, the skepticism didn't originate with me. There's some online people - this website called HistoryHuntersInternational.org got kind of interested and then increasingly suspicious about this fabulous tale of this bride being brought by the Sussex.

And these fellows were kind of smart about history and they knew how to search the records in the British library online for whether or not the exchequer had ever cleared a payment of that size and whether or not it was put on the Sussex. Lo and behold, there was no paper trail for that. And in fact, the paper trail that the Odyssey cited looked increasingly thin, if you looked at it closely.

And it has to be said, really, that the Times said that there was possibly up to four billion dollars worth of treasure. And of course, that got repeated around the world in the echo chamber of the media and Internet. So all of a sudden, it becomes an established fact that there's four billion dollars worth of treasure that Odyssey is going to be bringing up.

It goes out there and Odyssey really benefits from those figures being named. You know, obviously, there's some doubt as to whether it even is the Sussex. It might not be the right anchor, according to this History Hunter fellow. So it's all gotten rather complicated, and I spent a lot of time trying to unravel this.

MARTIN: When you say Odyssey is benefiting from this, explain to us what that means. They are perhaps deriving a little more financial benefit than people might think.

Mr. COLAPINTO: Well, that's the other wrinkle to this increasingly wrinkled story, is that the Odyssey is if not the only, then one of the only, and I think they certainly were the first treasure hunters ever to be publicly traded, listed on the stock exchange. And what makes it so interesting about them being publicly traded is that when they announce a find like the Sussex with its four billion dollars, allegedly, or the Black Swan, an alleged 500 million dollar treasure, the stock does something that's rather predictable - it goes up.

MARTIN: Interesting.

Mr. COLAPINTO: Yes, it will double, you know what I mean? Isn't that a surprise?

MARTIN: Isn't that funny?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLAPINTO: It can even rocket upward from two to nine dollars in a single day, as it did when the Black Swan was announced last May. You know, one gets curious about the directors who own stock. What do they do when the stock goes so very high? And what has tended to happen is that certain directors have sold, you know, substantial amounts of stock. John Morris selling over a million dollars worth of stock after the Black Swan was announced.

And when the Black Swan was found, Odyssey said, you know, we can't tell you where it was found. We can't show the treasure to anyone. We can't tell you whose king is on the coins. We can't tell you the date of the coins, but just trust us. We're going to post on our website an independent expert's theory that this could sell for as much as 500 million dollars.

MARTIN: But I mean, you can't - on Wall Street you can't just say to Wall Street, oh, by the way, this is how much our stock is worth because we found this treasure that we say is this much money. I mean, the SEC, I imagine, got involved and started looking into this?

Mr. COLAPINTO: That's the - another fascinating part of the story is that in an earlier incarnation as a company called "Seahawk Deep Ocean Technology," Greg Stemm and John Morris found another treasure in the Dry Tortugas near Florida - Florida Keys - that was also trumpeted as - again, in newspapers like the New York Times and others, as being 800 million dollars. This was back in 1989. And the stock again did that predictable thing. It shot up. And in that instance, Greg Stemm and John Morris and the company was investigated by the SEC.

MARTIN: Because did they sell their shares? Were there indications that...

Mr. COLAPINTO: Yes, indeed.

MARTIN: Were their indications that major shareholders were selling after that announcement? Major red flag.

Mr. COLAPINTO: Major red flag. And when some gold bars were found - when one gold bar was found, they really sold quite aggressively. That really was a red flag. Now, the company was investigated for several years, and the SEC put on an aggressive case, where they pointed out that the treasure supposedly valued at 800 million dollars. When the stock that was actually brought up was evaluated by auction experts, it came out to about a million dollars.

Seahawk said it was five million, but anyway, it was not 800 million. And so it - the SEC put on its case, Seahawk put on a strong defense, and, in fact, was acquitted. They were found innocent of any wrongdoing. And that's why there were then able to move on and do Odyssey, which they had then started sometime before.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit about the laws that govern these kinds of discoveries?

Mr. COLAPINTO: You know, there are laws that have existed at least since the '70s that gave countries sovereign immunity, which is ownership, over their warships.

MARTIN: But Odyssey says finders' keepers, essentially.

Mr. COLAPINTO: Yeah, that was always a sort of loose understanding that it was "finders' keepers." And what would happen, ordinarily, is the treasure hunter would bring up the treasure. The country that really owned the treasure would make a claim on it, and they would usually pay the treasure hunter a salvage award.

They would say hey, you went through the trouble of getting it, thanks a lot. We get some money back, but we'd like to give you a huge amount. Countries now are starting to want to make claims on what they call their cultural patrimony. It's become a real trend for countries to say, hey, that stuff in a museum should be returned to our country. It originated with us.

And they're feeling the same way about sunken ships of theirs. But I should mention, you asked me about the legal aspects. There's this UNESCO convention from around 2001 that's really been created to thwart treasure hunters. And what it essentially says is that anything older than 100 years old cannot be sold. So that really kind of puts the kibosh on treasure hunters.

MARTIN: You're supposed to just surrender it to a historical society?

Mr. COLAPINTO: Or not pick it up at all.

MARTIN: Just not pick it up? You're supposed to leave it there?

Mr. COLAPINTO: Just leave it there. That's really the trend now. Countries like Spain are saying, we're content to just leave our wrecks there. And in Odyssey's defense, Odyssey says that's crazy. I mean, we have the money and the technology to send robots down to meticulously photograph this stuff, to videotape it. You know that you may object to the fact that we want to sell the treasure in order to fund more of this, but, you know, we're doing legitimate recording of the site and so on.

MARTIN: There are some other folks out there who have a different beef with these folks. People who work in museums, people who are really into archeology, they worry that treasure hunters like the folks at Odyssey - they're not really doing what they should to preserve what they think are very treasures sites, right?

Mr. COLAPINTO: That's a huge part of the debate and controversy about Odyssey and other treasure hunters. Nautical archeologists believe that these ancient ships should be meticulously studied for what they can tell us about man's seafaring past, man's technological past. Those treasure galleons that were on the seas back in the 1500s, 1600s were, you know, the most advanced technology of the day.

They were like the spaceships we send up. And so, you know, the fact that they are down there at such a depth, and thus pretty well-preserved, they haven't been gnawed out by light and so on, often well-preserved. Not always well-preserved, but often. You know, it's argued by these nautical archeologists that these things should be meticulously studied.

I spoke with the sort of father of nautical archeology, George Bass at Texas A&M, and he really talked about how ships he's discovered he has studied over 30 years. I mean, reconstructing the hull from tiny fragments, glassware being meticulously pieced together, a million fragments at a time. This is the kind of meticulous care. Another nautical archeologist told me that view them as crime scenes, and they go into them with that kind of meticulous care. Odyssey...

MARTIN: Doesn't do that.

Mr. COLAPINTO: Well, you know, Odyssey argues that it does respect the sites. Odyssey argues that they always have an accredited archeologist on board who is watching and telling the ROV operator - that's the remote control robot operator - to be careful of this or that. They don't smash this. Odyssey makes these photo mosaics of the sites, thousands of pictures to show where every artifact is so things are recorded.

I should also mention that when they bring up the artifacts, Odyssey has conservation labs where they use electrolysis to remove encrustations from cannons. They preserve the coins properly, usually because they want to sell them and any scratched coins don't sell as well. Nevertheless, they conserve things properly. So Odyssey would argue, and does argue, that they take meticulous care that was never taken in the past.

An earlier generation of treasure hunters, these kind of swashbuckling, rum-drinking, piratical hilarious kind of guys would kind of rip the things apart without a care. You know, just get to the gold, you know, and don't even mark where it was. I mean, Odyssey is not doing that, by Odyssey's account and I think, you know, the nautical archeologists I spoke with that work with Odyssey said that a certain amount of care was taken.

At the same time, there's no way Odyssey is taking 30 years to excavate things. And Odyssey is not publishing in journals what they find archeologically of interest. And you know, one of the guys I spoke to that worked on a wreck that Seahawk found says that the ROV crushed a bunch of ancient Spanish olive jars.

Another archeologist I spoke to that wanted to remain anonymous said that he saw a project plan to sink a shaft through the decks of a ship to get where the gold lay. This would have been after Odyssey took the meticulous photography and so on. But at the end of the day, when Odyssey needs to do is get at whatever is valuable, so they can get at whatever is valuable so that they can sell it and thus fund - keep funding the operation.

MARTIN: John Colapinto, thank you so much for coming. We appreciate it.

Mr. COLAPINTO: My pleasure, Rachel. Thank you so much.

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MARTIN: I'm Rachel Martin.

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