Who owns Black Swan gold?
Deep sea treasure trove triggers trans-Atlantic dispute
Ground crew unloading more than 17 tons of silver coins recovered from the "Black Swan" shipwreck by Odyssey Marine Exploration. AFP
MADRID, (AFP) -Hardly had deep-sea treasure hunters had time to celebrate their discovery this month of perhaps the world's richest treasure wreck before the marine booty became the centre of a heated ownership debate.
The US company Odyssey Marine Exploration announced on May 18 it had discovered the wreck, code-named "Black Swan," using the latest in undersea robot technology.
But mystery surrounds who owns the more than 17 tonnes of silver and gold coins and other artefacts the vessel was carrying when it went down, and a debate is even raging about where it sank.
According to some reports the ship sank 40 miles (60 kilometres) off the coast of Cornwall in southwestern England, opposite Spain's northwestern coastline, while other reports claim it went down in the Strait of Gibraltar.
Odyssey has insisted it found the wreck in international waters in the Atlantic but has kept the exact site secret. Madrid suspects the ship was discovered in Spanish territorial waters and a Spanish newspaper reported the vessel itself belonged to Spain. "What we're seeing here is a presumed incidence of plundering," First Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said Friday.
Spain opened a probe into the exact location of the wreck last week after the culture ministry became suspicious of the circumstances in which the cargo, worth an estimated 400 million dollars, was found.
Odyssey co-founder Greg Stemm however denies anything untoward.
In an interview with El Pais newspaper last Saturday Stemm said Madrid would be informed if the ship turned out to be Spanish and pointed out his company had offered to receive Spanish archaeologists aboard. "We haven't yet identified where it comes from. The find site is full of lost colonial-era vessels," he said.
Odyssey has taken the artefacts recovered to date to its Tampa base in Florida to determine more about the history of the vessel and document its contents.
Spanish newspaper ABC meanwhile reported Friday that "Black Swan" was Spanish and had been located in Spanish territorial waters near the Strait of Gibraltar.
As proof of ownership the paper published a picture it said was taken by a Gibraltar port employee showing one of the coins from the treasure trove featuring the profile of Spanish King Charles III, who ruled Spain in the late 18th century.
Odyssey was "more than ever suspected of having pillaged in the waters of the Strait of Gibraltar," the paper said.
Reacting to the report, Stemm insisted in the interview with El Pais from Los Angeles that "this coin did not come from the treasure we found," claiming any report to the contrary was false.
Spain is also suspicious of Britain's potential role in the affair, with the culture ministry saying it had information the cargo was loaded up in the British dependent territory of Gibraltar and then transferred to Tampa, where it arrived on May 17.
Spain announced last Wednesday it was breaking off an agreement struck with Britain in March regarding a joint mission headed by Odyssey to find another wreck, the "HMS Sussex".
The 17th century British warship was believed to be carrying a huge haul of gold when it sank in the western Mediterranean in 1694 with the loss of all but two of its 500-member crew.
The search for the Sussex was first halted last year when authorities in Spain's southern region of Andalusia said they had not sanctioned the hunt for the wreck, carrying booty to help finance the Duke of Savoy's campaign against French King Louis XIV.
Under an existing agreement regarding the Sussex, Odyssey would have to share revenue from finds with the British government.
The Spanish culture ministry suspects "Black Swan" and the Sussex may be the same vessel, something Odyssey denies.
The wreck, or wrecks, are also the subject of speculation in the British media.
The Daily Mail has suggested the "Black Swan" bounty could be that lost on the Merchant Royal, a British ship also known as the "El Dorado of the seas,"which went down off Britain's western Scilly Isles in 1641 with a Mexican treasure haul aboard.
Historians say that ship left the Spanish port of Cadiz for Britain with a haul including the wages of some 30,000 soldiers who fought for the Spanish crown during the 30 Years War.