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When treasure and technology meet, who gets the gold?

Sunday, November 29, 1998

By Helen O'Neill, The Associated Press

Richard Steinmetz knew exactly what the federal marshals wanted when they pounded on his door: his nicotine-stained shipwreck treasure, the Alabama bell.

For years the bell, a relic of the notorious Confederate raider, the CSS Alabama, sat in his antiques store in New York. In 1990, strapped for cash and facing heart surgery, Steinmetz put it up for auction.

Then the feds came calling.

"They accused me of stealing government property," Steinmetz says, wheezing in indignation when he recalls the scene. "I told them they were stealing if they took it from me."

Wrong, he was told. The Navy doesn't abandon warships. All of them, even rusting confederate ones, belong to the United States government.

Never mind that the bell had spent 73 years in the murky depths off the coast of France, that it had been fished out by an English diver in 1937, that he had traded it for drinking rights at an island pub, where for years it was rung as last call for locals. War erupted. The pub was bombed. The bell wound up in an English antiques store, where it was eventually bought by Steinmetz.

Today it sits in a Washington Navy museum, still black from years of pub smoke.

Steinmetz, who fought his claim in court unsuccessfully for years, wasn't the only one left shaking his head at the peculiar brand of justice that rules the high seas.

There are thousands of shipwrecks around the world and thousands of treasure hunters searching for them, spinning dreams of gold as they scour the ocean blue.

These days, something strange is happening. Technology is making those dreams come true.

Little underwater robots that roam the deep, plucking pieces-of-eight from Spanish galleons; deep diving submersibles that ferry tourists to the North Atlantic to view the ghostly remains of Titanic; mixed-gas scuba gear that lets divers glimpse bones in German U-boats at depths unheard of a couple of decades ago.

Titanic. Lusitania. Andrea Doria. Britannic.

In recent years divers have explored them all and more, hauling up all sorts of booty. Delicate blue-and-white porcelain from 17th century Chinese junks, gold from the California gold rush, bronze sculptures from ancient Roman vessels, a pirate's 280-year-old black walnut pistol - and his silk sock.

The discoveries bring lawsuits and questions: Who are the rightful owners of the wrecks and their belongings: descendants, the state, salvors?

And a trickier question. Who has the power to decide, particularly when a wreck lies in international waters far from the jurisdiction of any one country?

Who owns the gold at the bottom of the deep blue sea?

Even as courts try to grapple with answers they raise more questions.

"It's like the Wild West with a showdown at high noon and afterwards everyone says 'Where was the sheriff?'," says Titanic discoverer Robert Ballard. He is referring to the salvors, treasure hunters, sports divers, archaeologists, scientists, oceanographers and military all scrambling to stake their claim to the ocean floor.

This year saw its share of high noons on the high seas.

Titanic: A Virginia court ordered Australian, German and American tourists to stay away from the remains of the luxury liner, which sank 400 miles off Newfoundland in 1912. The tourists laughed. Try to stop us, they said, clambering into tiny submarines and dropping into the waves.

The La Galga and the Juno: Spain objected when the same court granted an American company rights to two treasure-laden ships that sank about a mile off Virginia in the 1800s. Those ships weren't abandoned, Spain huffed. Now, hand over the loot. Spain has yet to file a formal claim in court.

The Brother Jonathan: The Gold Rush-era paddle-steamer sank off California in 1865 and washed up in the U.S. Supreme Court last spring. The treasure trove: $50 million. The contenders: treasure hunters who spent 20 years searching for the ship and the state of California that demanded a cut. The Supreme Court chucked the case back to the federal courts to decide.

Court battles are only part of the picture. In the emerging world of the deep ocean, wrecks are being discovered all the time.

Just last year, Ballard discovered the remains of the USS Yorktown, which sank during the Battle of Midway in World War II. Divers in Egypt pulled up a 2,000-year-old Sphinx. Trolling the Mediterranean for a gold-laden British warship, Florida treasure hunters stumbled on a fifth-century Phoenician wreck. Bullion from the two world wars was found off the coast of Ireland.

And, teased by a trail of gold coins, treasure hunters finally located the hull of "Black Sam" Bellamy's pirate ship, the Whydah, which sank off Cape Cod in 1717. Is a five-ton chest of gold buried inside?

"Technology is taking us to the Pyramids of the deep," says Ballard, president of the Institute for Exploration in Mystic, Conn., who discovered Titanic with a French team in 1985. Since then, he has peered at the guns and swastikas of the Nazi battleship Bismarck, photographed ceramic containers of ancient Roman wrecks, gasped at the hull of Titanic's sister ship Brittanic, which lies virtually intact in the Aegean Sea.

"The question," he says, "is do we use technology to plunder or to ponder."

Those on the side of pondering - archaeologists and historians - are desperately pushing for measures to halt the plunder. Maritime museums now refuse to display treasures from "looted" sites - those salvaged by for-profit ventures. States include underwater resources in their historic preservation plans. There are 12 National Marine Sanctuaries and hundreds of underwater sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Internationally, UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, is pushing for protection of the world's underwater heritage by declaring most shipwrecks to be the property of the world's governments.

But archaeological ethics are having a hard time keeping up with technology. And conflicting national interests and cultures make agreements difficult. Is a wreck historic if it is 50 years old, or 500?

War tombs, like a Japanese submarine bombed in the mid-Atlantic in 1944, pose more questions. Three years ago, an American group beat a rival British team in a race to find the sub, the I-52, which sank in international waters about halfway between the Cape Verde Islands and Barbados.

Can Japan claim the remains of 109 bodies or the two tons of gold?

What about policing? How do countries enforce "no trespassing" when the waves are 10 feet high, the salvage ships are circling and gold gleams seductively in the depths below?

Eventually, Ballard and others suggest, rules and laws will be developed similar to those that protect archaeological sites on land. Meanwhile, he says, "I feel like I've walked into a bar fight."

Smack in the center is the most famous wreck of all: Titanic.

Today Ballard cannot return to the wreck he discovered without the permission of the man who owns it - a wealthy car dealer from Connecticut.

How do you own the Titanic? You drop 21/2 miles to the bottom of the ocean, scoop up a wine decanter from the site, haul it into a Virginia court and - in legal jargon - "arrest" the wreck.

George Tullock and his company, RMS Titanic Inc., did precisely that, winning first salvage rights and later exclusive access and photography rights to the site. The court reasoned that the salvors, who have since yanked thousands of plates, wine bottles and personal belongings from the ocean floor, are preserving the artifacts "for the benefit of all mankind."

How can an American judge decide the fate of a British wreck in international waters and anoint a cultural savior?

Easy. If no one else claims jurisdiction over the site, then any admiralty court - which, in the United States means a federal court - can assume jurisdiction and make decisions for the world.

Never mind that the Titanic Maritime Memorial Act of 1985 speaks in lofty terms about respecting the integrity of the wreck. Or that the man who discovered the ship believes it should rest in peace.

In maritime tradition, whoever arrests a wreck has the right - with court restrictions - to dispose of it.

The tradition endures because it works, say those who risk life, limb and bankruptcy to find sunken ships. The profit motive, they argue, has always been part of deep sea exploration.

"If someone is going to use private capital to raise these objects and put them on display, why is that not for the benefit of all mankind?" asks diver Peter Hess, a Delaware lawyer who specializes in representing salvors. "How else is mankind going to see them?"

Admiralty law is clear, Hess says. "From the days of the Phoenicians, the concept that the person who voluntarily rescues a ship from marine peril, who takes all the risks in finding it, should be entitled to compensation."

Finders keepers, sort of.

Titanic's arrest was preceded by that of the Central America, a side-wheel steamer loaded with the gold of California prospectors, that sank in a hurricane in 1857 about 180 miles east of South Carolina. The drama of the ship's sinking, women and children huddling in the saloon while men desperately bailed out water, was matched more than a century later by the hi-tech drama of its discovery.

Circled by competitors who threatened to ram their salvage boat, a band of Ohio adventurers (backed by a consortium of investors) used a three-ton underwater robot to pluck a piece of fuel from the wreck. In a move worthy of a James Bond movie, they swung it onto a low-flying seaplane, which hightailed it back to a Virginia court.

They arrested their ship of gold with a lump of coal.

It was one of the biggest treasure troves ever recovered. Gold dust, nuggets, bars, coins: In all the salvors claimed they had found about 21 tons of gold.

"The bottom was carpeted with gold," expedition leader Tommy Thompson says in a recent book about the group's exploits (Gary Kinder's "Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea").

"Gold everywhere, like a garden. The more you looked, the more you saw gold growing out of everything."

No wonder when the adventurers finally sailed back into port, the dock was lined with representatives of insurance companies claiming to have underwritten portions of the ship's cargo.

Ruling on the salvage award, the court praised the pioneering spirit of the discoverers as "a paradigm of American initiative, ingenuity and determination."

But one man's hero is another man's villain. Especially on the high seas.

Take the Lusitania, torpedoed off the coast of Ireland in 1915 with the loss of 1,200 people, including Americans. The sinking helped draw the United States into World War I.

History? Heritage? Tomb?

The wreck lies in about 300 feet of water, 12 miles offshore, a heady challenge for "extreme" divers who want to touch its hull and live to tell the tale. With dry-suits and decompression tables and hi-tech scuba gear, they do just that. If they are careful, and lucky, they spend about 20 minutes exploring the liner and surface without suffering the bends.

There's just one problem. Owner Gregg Bemis of Santa Fe, N.M., doesn't want them near his wreck.

Rogues, he calls them. Trespassers, who "don't give a damn about archaeology or property rights or the law."

Bemis wants to salvage the Lusitania himself, maybe put some relics in an underwater museum in Las Vegas, maybe produce a documentary.

After all, he spent more than 10 years wading through the British, American and Irish courts, spending a small fortune in the process. To Bemis, the wreck is his, fair and square. No different from owning the Chrysler Building.

To others, laying claim to Titanic or Lusitania is like staking a claim to the moon.

"A wreck is something bigger than the size of someone's wallet," argues John Chatterton of Springfield, N.J., one of the "rogues" who dived 295 feet to the Lusitania without Bemis' consent. "You can't own the history of the Lusitania. You can't own the memories people had of families and friends who lost their lives. I've touched the Lusitania, Beamis hasn't. Who has more feeling for the wreck, him or me?"

Chatteron, a commercial diver, points to other famous wrecks that are open to the public. This summer he dived to the Britannic, which lies in nearly 400 feet of water off the Greek Island of Kea. He had to get the permission of the Greek government, and the British owner, to do so.

Chatterton also has made dozens of dives to the Italian luxury liner, the Andrea Doria, a virtual floating art gallery, which sank off the coast of Nantucket in 1956. The Andrea Doria is a favorite wreck for decompression divers, who fill their little underwater bags with plates and cups and any other goodies they can find. The owner of the wreck, another New Jersey diver, lets them. He salvaged the most valuable items, artwork and friezes, himself.

"We are not plunderers," says Chatterton, who arrested his own New Jersey wreck, the S.S. Carolina in 1995. "We are not pillaging and raping. We do it for the thrill of discovery, the interest in history. We do some hairy diving, but it's not about searching for gold."

Tell that to the museums. Rape and escape, they call it. Plundering at its worst, for private gain.

Whether it's Titanic, Lusitania or the Andrea Doria, the major museums say treasure hunting is incompatible with scientific archaeology. Institutions that display objects retrieved by commercial salvors should be shunned.

"We would like to see sites properly salvaged and the information made available for everyone to study, rather than see a wreck ripped apart for one company's profit," says Paul F. Johnston, curator of maritime history at the Smithsonian Institution. "Once you rip apart a wreck site, you can't put it together again."

The Smithsonian will not exhibit artifacts from Titanic, Andrea Doria, the Whydah or many others.

But even among purists, there's a sense things have to change. For one thing, museums face too many awkward decisions when fabulous treasure turns up at their doors. Rejected, the treasure hunters can simply take their goods - and patrons - elsewhere.

"Museums can't afford to take an all-or-nothing position, especially with all this new technology," says John Carter of Philadelphia's Independent Seaport Museum. "There are just too many shipwrecks being discovered out there."

These days, finding them means more than technology, time and a thirst for adventure. Increasingly it means big money. Many of the investors in the Central America venture sank between $50,000 and $100,000 in the search.

Today, there are dozens of consortiums backing dozens of treasure hunts, everyone trying to out-race everyone else while keeping their targets secret.

Among the most sought after treasure ships: the San Jose, an 18th century Spanish Galleon that sank off Colombia, and the Flor De La Mar, a Portuguese galleon that foundered off the Malacca Straits in 1508 with treasure estimated at $1.7 billion.

Eventually, a fuzzy sonar image will tell someone they have struck their dream.

Their discovery - and others - will raise more questions, about patrolling and protecting the ocean, about science and salvage, about archaeology and profit, about who owns the bounty still buried in the deep.

As one court, trying to resolve yet another shipwreck dispute observed: "There is gold beneath the ocean, while above ground there are men who covet it."

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