Wrecks to Riches: Hunting Sunken Treasures from Cape Cod to the Costa Concordia

Hunting sunken treasure, from Cape Cod to the Costa Concordia
Hunting sunken treasure, from Cape Cod to the Costa Concordia

Off the coast of Massachusetts, and in the Mediterranean waters surrounding the Tuscan island of Giglio, treasure hunters are seeking sunken loot.

Greg Brooks of Gorham, Maine -- a founder of shipwreck recovery firm Sub Sea Research -- says he has located the underwater remains of a British merchant ship that was sunk off Cape Cod by a German submarine during World War II. According to Brooks, the wreck contains a cargo of platinum bars now worth more than $3 billion.

In Italy, meanwhile, the stricken cruise liner Costa Concordia beckons to would-be scavengers. The ship holds everything from jewels and cash to "19th-century Bohemian crystal glassware" and "300-year-old woodblock

prints by a Japanese master," according to the Associated Press.

Sunken treasure
Sunken treasure

For now, the hoard of riches left behind by the hastily evacuated passengers and crew remains inaccessible. Robert F. Marx, a seasoned diver and the author of 64 books on maritime history and underwater archaeology, told the AP, "As long as there are bodies in there, it's considered off base to everybody because it's a grave." Once all the bodies have been removed, however, "there will be a mad dash for the valuables."

Hans Reinhardt, a lawyer representing 19 German passengers seeking compensation for their losses, seems to agree: "It's now a paradise for divers." According to the AP, "some of [Reinhardt's] clients traveled with diamond-studded jewels and other heirlooms that had been in their families for generations."

The Italian company that operated the Costa Concordia still owns the ship, and passengers of course own their sunken possessions. Anyone seeking treasure in the wreck would therefore be breaking the law. "The ship is being guarded 24 hours a day," said Lt. Massimo Maccheroni, a Coast Guard official. "It's not possible to even get close."

But the prospect of arrest -- and the seizure of any valuables retrieved -- might not be enough to deter treasure hunters, who tend to be a determined bunch.

"Bright-eyed divers will want to make a fortune," said Robert Marx, and given that everything retrieved from the vessel will fetch an attractive price -- already, items tied to the Costa Concordia are up for sale on eBay (EBAY) -- the incentive is large. What's more, certain divers are guaranteed to have a disregard for the law: According the Marx, the Mafia has special teams whose job it is to trawl for sunken treasure.

A Lost Hoard from World War II

Brooks certainly evinces
the iron will of the determined treasure hunter. "I'm going to get it," he said of the wreck, which sits in 700 feet of water, 50 miles offshore, "one way or another, even if I have to lift the ship out of the water."

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Brooks has been patient, waiting four years to announce his discovery, until he had negotiated salvage rights. He and his crew identified the wreck as the remains of the S.S. Port Nicholson after capturing the hull number with an underwater camera. When it went down in 1942, the ship was ferrying 71 tons of platinum, worth about $53 million at the time, to New York. The cargo was payment from Soviet Union to the United States for war supplies. Brooks says gold bullion and diamonds were also on board. He hopes to use a remote-controlled submarine to bring up the cargo, beginning later this month or in early March.

Robert Marx has expressed skepticism about Brooks' plans, noting that two companies (one British and one American) have previously sought the contents of the Port Nicholson, meaning there might not be much left to salvage. For its part, Great Britain is taking a wait-and-see approach. A lawyer retained by the British government in the case, Timothy Shusta of Tampa, Fla., has said England won't decide whether to file a claim until salvage operations are under way.

Brooks remains confident, citing a Treasury Department ledger that says the precious metal was indeed on board, as well as footage from his underwater camera showing a platinum bar surrounded by boxes which he believes contain still more platinum. He'll have to modify his underwater craft before it can retrieve the metal: He thinks attaching lines to the boxes and hoisting them with a winch will do the trick.

Much less optimistic are Hans Reinhardt's clients, who have resigned themselves to receiving a cash settlement in lieu of their actual valuables. "They would prefer to get their original stuff," said Reinhard. "But they don't have hope."

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