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Treasure Hunts Founder on Law's Shoals

History: As technology makes shipwrecks easier to find, bizarre disputes arise. To ponder or to plunder?


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 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, even rusting Confederate ones, belong to the U.S. 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?

As courts 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, archeologists, 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 contended; 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, which demanded a cut. The Supreme Court chucked the case back to the federal courts to decide.

Perpetual Discoveries

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 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, JudgmentFlorida treasure hunters stumbled on a 5th 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?

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