Odyssey Marine learns that finders aren’t keepers

J. Keith Johnson Senior Writer, The Gold Informant
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Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. [OMEX] appears to be an exciting company. Its employees get to do what young men dream of doing — search for hidden treasure. From old galleons to cargo ships sunk during WWII, if there’s treasure to be found, they’re all about finding and retrieving it.

A few years ago, they discovered an old Spanish warship, the Mercedes, in international waters off the coast of Spain.

Here’s the backstory: Spain used to take all sorts of precious metals from Peru, using the nationals there as laborers for their efforts. During the 1800s an incredible amount of wealth transferred across the Atlantic as Spanish taskmasters plundered the Peruvians. You’d think they thought the gold was theirs to take.

The Mercedes was a Spanish Royal Naval frigate sunk by Britain in combat in 1804. Its cargo consisted of 900,000 silver pesos and 5,809 golden pesos, as well as some copper and tin.

Odyssey, two centuries later, discovered the wreck about 100 miles off the Straits of Gibraltar. Upon bringing up almost 600,000 coins, the Odyssey salvage ship was confronted by Spanish naval ships and told that they were holding Spanish sovereign property.

While Odyssey fought the case in U.S. courts, it seems that international law only applies when certain people or entities aren’t, or are, involved. In this case, the U.S. court refused to protect the rights of this U.S. company and agreed with Spain that the coins had to be turned over to Spanish authorities. Remarkably, however, Spain is not required to return the treasure to Peru. One has to wonder why Peruvian lawyers weren’t present to stake their claim.

Odyssey learned a valuable lesson, however, and now enters into a contract with the country’s government before recovering one of their sunken treasures. On Wednesday, the company retrieved a sizeable haul from the SS Gairsoppa, a British cargo ship sunk in 1941 when an infamous U-boat caught it in its sights.

The haul is almost 1.5 million ounces of silver, but still only represents about 20% of what was on the ship when it sank. Rather than having to worry about a sovereign claim, however, Odyssey entered an agreement with the U.K. that gives the British government 20% of anything it recovers. Another similar ship, the SS Mantola, is within 100 miles of the Gairsoppa site, and is next on Odyssey’s agenda.

Will finds such as these affect the supply of silver appreciably? No, not really. In the scheme of things, it’s small change. But for the boy in us, it’s an adventure we all dream of. Hopefully we’ll see many more discoveries from Odyssey Marine.

J. Keith Johnson’s Austrian and libertarian perspectives on current socioeconomic and geopolitical affairs are fueled by his insatiable desire to both discover and share the truth. A Goldco Direct affiliate, you’ll find his commentary on The Gold Informant website, as well as various Internet financial and news sites.