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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (03/2003) Headlines (01/2003) Headlines (05/2003)   Vol. 37 March 2003 
Treasure In The Headlines
As seen in the March 2003 edition of W&ET Magazine


A 12-page handwritten manuscript of President Lincoln's last address sold at auction for nearly $3.1 million. Christie's auction house said the sale Wednesday as a world auction record for handwritten American historic document.

The Augusta Chronicle, submitted by Stephen & Julie Buckler.


Hidden for more than 200 years, a letter written by British explorer Capt. James Cook was found wedged in the back of a picture frame.

The letter was written to the British Admiralty telling them he had returned safely from his first voyage to Australia.

Bonhams Auction House said that one of its employees found the letter in the library of Brancaster Hall, a country house near Hunstanton, Norfolk, on England's east coast.

The handwritten note detailed the hardships faced by the crew of Cook's ship, the Endeavour, during its three-year journey to chart the coasts of New Zealand, eastern Australia and Tahiti.

Nearly a third of the Endeavour's crew was killed by malarial fever or dysentery, and in the letter Cook refers to "28 dead tickets"- the names of dead seamen. He also mentions five parcels containing the belongings of dead officers.

Experts believe that Cook wrote the note off the coast of Kent and passed it to a small fishing boat for delivery to London as he returned to England in 1771.

Finished off with Cook's distinctive florid signature, it was likely the explorer's first communication with the Admiralty from British waters.

"There must have been a great deal of satisfaction for Cook in writing such a letter to the Admiralty saying, 'I have made it and I am nearly home.' It is almost the equivalent of the 'Star Trek' crew returning to Earth," said David Park, head of books and manuscripts at Bonhams.

The letter, valued at $31,200, was tucked behind a framed list of supplies that turned out to be Cook's bill in 1776 to the Treasury for ship supplies on his second voyage. Cook came across Hawaii on his third voyage in 1778.

Both will be auctioned off by Bonhams in December, when the bill is expected to fetch $6,200.

Park said it wasn't known how the letter and the bill reached Brancaster Hall, but ancestors of the Simms-Adams family, who own the house, had connections with Whitby in Yorkshire, northern England, where the Endeavour was built and Cook honed his seamanship skills.

The Endeavour set sail from Plymouth in 1768 and sailed around Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean until reaching Tahiti. From there, Cook observed the transit of the planet Venus across the sun.

After departing from Tahiti, Cook sailed to the North Island of New Zealand and the east coast of Australia and discovered Botany Bay, near Sydney.

From the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, submitted by Ron Paul Smith.


The American company that discovered the lost ship with what may be history's richest sunken treasure has signed an agreement with the British government, which owns it, to raise it from the bottom of the Mediterranean and split the proceeds.

The agreement is a legal breakthrough that could open the way to the recovery of perhaps up to $4 billion in gold coins that went down with H.M.S. Sussex in a violent storm in 1694, and of dozens of sunken vessels in seas around the world.

The company, Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. of Tampa, Fla., found what British authorities believe to be the Sussex during four expeditions off Gibraltar from 1998 to 2001. The exploratory work was done with British approval, and the discovery tentatively announced last February. But until now there has been no legal precedent for a private company to join with a government to raise its treasure.

As new technologies open up the deep sea, the maritime superpowers of present and past - notably Spain, Portugal, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Russia and the United States - have begun to assert ownership over thousands of ships that were lost in distant waters.

But little has come of the claims because the governments often lack the money and skills to pull sunken treasure and cultural riches from the depths, and they have struck no major deals to let commercial partners share the risks and rewards.

The new agreement, which is being announced by Britain on Monday, changes that. The Ministry of Defense, the sunken ship's official owner, calls it "an important step in development of a 'partnering' approach to deep-sea archaeology."

Experts say it could end the days of freelance treasure hunting and start a time when nations oversee the recovery of their own lost fleets. They praised the agreement for requiring cultural artifacts to be handled according to contemporary archaeological standards.

The British say the Sussex, the flagship of a large flotilla, carried a fortune in treasure to buy the loyalty of a shaky ally in a war against France. In darkness half a mile down, the site where it is believed to lie consists of a large mound rich in cannons, anchors and other artifacts - the only such objects found anywhere near the area where the Sussex was reported lost.

"We're fairly convinced it's the Sussex," a senior British official said in an interview. "And we're very excited to be working with Odyssey. We really want to see this succeed."

American experts, echoing the British assessment, say the accord is unique. "It's the first time we're seeing a profit-making group doing this kind of recovery," said Anne G. Giesecke, a marine adviser to the Society for Historical Archaeology, a professional group. Robert C. Blumberg, a senior policy adviser at the State Department, called the agreement "a public-private partnership where both sides stand to gain."

Months of detailed negotiations delayed the accord until Sept. 27, British and Odyssey officials said. The government said the agreement would "extend to recording and preservation of artifacts and their eventual conservation, publication, exhibition, marketing and all other facets relating to the management of our underwater cultural heritage."

Odyssey considers the agreement a coup and a model for a new era. "We see a whole industry emerging," said Greg Stemm, a founder of the company. "The private sector will routinely help governments in managing their marine heritage. It's already a huge industry on land."

The company, which is publicly traded, is risking its own money in the venture: $4 million so far and up to $4 million for excavation work with an eventual total of tens of millions of dollars, much of it for marketing the treasure, Mr. Stemm said. Both sides agree that the ship carried coins, most likely gold, that were worth £1 million in 1694. In weight, that would be about nine tons. The $4 billion figure comes from the theoretical value of the coins if sold to collectors, which the company says it cannot predict.

The partnership is to split the profits or appraised values of the recovered coins on a sliding scale that favors Odyssey at first and then the government. Odyssey is to get 80 percent of the proceeds up to $45 million, 50 percent from $45 million to $500 million and 40 percent above $500 million. The British government gets the rest.

The agreement calls for archaeological integrity - a difficult technical feat at such depths and a goal that critics of for-profit archaeology are likely to dispute. Many archaeologists abhor the sale of recovered artifacts, saying it inhibits scholarly analysis and public display.

The partnership agreement draws a distinction between classes of artifacts, saying cultural items have a greater archaeological value than coins, which it allows to be sold to help pay for the project.

Mr. Blumberg of the State Department praised the approach as allowing the saving of wrecks that otherwise would deteriorate over time and be lost to history. Academic archaeologists, he said, had little money for the investigation of deep-sea artifacts. "If you have a thousand gold coins and they're virtually identical in every respect that you can discern," he asked, "why shouldn't you keep a representative sample for a museum and let the rest be sold?"

In recent years maritime countries have occasionally recovered shipwrecks from their shallow coastal waters. Sweden lifted the Vasa, a 17th-century warship, and Britain the Mary Rose, a 16th-century warship. This summer, the United States lifted the gun turret of the Monitor, a 19th-century ironclad.

In the case of distant waters, the governments often turned a blind eye to shallow-water treasure hunters. Spain took no action in 1985 when Mel Fisher found the Atocha, a galleon lost off Florida in 1622, and recovered about $400 million in treasure.

The stakes and costs have soared in recent years as robots, sonars and other advanced gear have opened every corner of the deep to exploration and recovery, bringing thousands of lost ships into play.

So governments have begun to assert ownership over their vessels, especially warships.

In 2000, Spain won a legal battle over the issue when a federal appeals court in Virginia ruled that it owned the remains of two warships lost off the Virginia coast two centuries ago. The ruling snatched the ships away from a treasure hunter, who estimated that the wrecks bore more than half a billion dollars in coins and precious metals.

In a new disclosure about the Sussex, the British statement said the "considerable economic loss to the nation led to the foundation of the Bank of England," which bailed out the government with a loan.

In keeping with British practice, the 30-page agreement is being kept secret. But the British have released a summary memorandum. It specifies such things as the licensing fees Odyssey must pay, the profit breakdown and how a project plan must be completed in 100 days.

"The government," it says, "may appoint two representatives to monitor and record the exploration to determine whether the activities are being carried out in compliance with the project plan."

The agreement also says the British government will receive "10 percent of any net income derived from intellectual property rights associated with the project," as well as 3 percent of Odyssey's "gross sales of merchandise that utilizes the name H.M.S. Sussex."

The partner approach, officials said, was adopted to avoid expensive court battles and to allow experts to devote more time to recovering lost history.

"To its credit," the statement said, "the company decided to work with British officials rather than resort to standard salvage practices."

From The New York Times, submitted by Glen Hodson.


Original Ship's Bell from 1492 Voyage To Be Sold In Madrid, 20 February 2003

MADRID - 23 January 2003 - Gestion de Activos y Subastas, a Barcelona-based auction house, announced today the consignment of the original ship's bell of the Santa Maria, one of the three famed ships from Columbus' monumental journey in 1492. The bell, which announced the discovery of the "New World" to the crew of the Santa Maria, is the only known artifact of the history of the American discovery. The bell will be sold in a single item sale in Madrid on 20 February, at the Hotel Ritz, where it will be on display beginning 17 February.

David Del Val Catal·, Gestion de Activos y Subastas' Chairman & CEO will be traveling between Madrid and the US, for the next month, discussing the Bell of the Santa Maria with potential purchasers, both institutional and individual.

"This is the first time that an item - any item - from Columbus' Santa Maria has been recovered, and certainly the only one to be available for sale," said David Del Val Catal·, Chairman & CEO, Gestion de Activos y Subastas. " Its value is "priceless" but the auction results will give it a price. We expect it to sell upwards of $10 million."

The Bell of the Santa Maria was discovered in 1994, off the coast of Portugal, among the remains of the San Salvador by the artifact's consignor, Roberto Mazzara. Mazzara, an Italian diver, was seeking the ruins of the San Salvador, a ship whose journey to Spain in 1555 ended in shipwreck. Eight years of research by historians and universities have authenticated the ruins discovered to be that of the San Salvador, and the bronze bell to be the Bell of the Santa Maria.

The full auction catalogue can be found online at and includes historical documentation as well as photographs.


For English-language information, regarding the purchase of the Bell of the Santa Maria, please contact Rachel Peters at (212) 725-4500 x 311 or Gestion de Activos y Subastas at 011 34 902 19 90 43.

About Gestion de Activos y Subastas Gestion de Activos y Subastas was founded in 1996 with the firm proposal to establish auctions as a common way of sale. It has offices in Barcelona, Madrid, Bilbao, and Gijon. The Barcelona headquarters are located at C/ Diputacion 274, Principal D, 08009 Barcelona, Spain. For more information, please visit or call 011 34 93 318 84 10.

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