Shipwreck Treasure's Fate a Toss-Up, Experts Say

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
May 24, 2007

In what could be the richest deep-sea treasure ever found, explorers last week pulled up hundreds of thousands of colonial-era coins from a shipwreck in the Atlantic Ocean.

The silver and cold coins could fetch as much as 500 million U.S. dollars, some experts predict.

But now, Odyssey Marine Expeditions, the Florida-based company that discovered the coins, could face a run for their money.

Spain may present a legal challenge over salvage rights to the vessel and ownership of any artifacts on the ship—including the coins.

Washington, D.C. attorney James A. Goold said today he has notified Odyssey that Spanish laws regarding salvage and possession of the contents of sunken Spanish ships may be applicable to this shipwreck.

Goold, who is with the firm Covington and Burling, said he has also asked Odyssey for information about the identity of the ship and its cargo.

But the company plans to keep the location under wraps, and Natja Igney, a spokesperson for Odyssey, said she could not respond today to questions about the ship.

The company—which is still uncertain of the ship's nationality, size, and age—has coined itBlack Swan.

George Bass, a retired professor of underwater archaeology at Texas A&M University told National Geographic News he understands why Odyssey is keeping the location of the Black Swan secret.

But he is concerned that other details haven't been disclosed.

"There may be a reason, but that's not the way scholars would deal with it," Bass said.

Bass said a shipwreck such as the Black Swan would be handled very carefully by professional underwater archaeologists, who might take years to fully excavate and interpret a site.

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