The Black Swan Heist?

On May 18, 2007, Odyssey Marine Exploration flew 17 tons of salvaged gold and silver coins to a secure facility in Florida. Now, five years later, U.S. courts have forced Odyssey to hand over this treasure to the Spanish government. What is the Black Swan Heist?

Odyssey & the Mysterious Black Swan Project?

Odyssey is a publicly-held marine salvage company. In other words, it’s a treasure hunting firm. Back in 2007, Odyssey completed a top-secret salvage expedition known as the Black Swan Project, uncovering some 17 tons of coins and other artifacts in the process. The operation is believed to have cost two million dollars and taken numerous years to complete.

Almost immediately, the Spanish government filed a claim on the treasure, arguing that the Black Swan was actually a Spanish vessel known as the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, which sank in 1804. Five years of court battles and drama followed. At one point, WikiLeaks even got involved. A secret cable revealed the American ambassador to Spain offered to help the Spanish government recover the treasure from Odyssey. In exchange, Spain was asked to compel a museum in Madrid to return a $20 million painting to a California family that claimed it had been stolen by the Nazis.

The Black Swan Heist?

In September 2011, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Odyssey in a highly questionable decision. In February 2012, Justice Clarence Thomas, acting on behalf of the U.S. Supreme Court, declined to hear the case. As a result, Odyssey is being forced to hand over the Black Swan treasure to the nearly-broke Spanish government. And in a slap to the face, the firm won’t receive any compensation for its work (leading many treasure hunters to suggest Odyssey return the Black Swan treasure to the ocean and make the Spanish government pay for its own recovery).

I don’t want to get into the minutia of the case here. The international laws governing shipwreck salvaging are murky and highly tilted toward governments over individuals. Suffice it to say the Black Swan wreck was never conclusively proven to be the Mercedes. And even if it was the Mercedes, that means that the vast majority of the coins were owned by merchants and not the Spanish government. Spain claims it had reimbursed the merchants back in the early 1800s and thus, was entitled to the treasure (interestingly enough, it has yet to provide any proof of this compensation).

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

From my point of view, this is a short-sighted decision that will have long-term ramifications (something I discuss in my novel Chaos). Going forward, treasure hunters will have little to no incentive to report their findings to the world. The black market for antiquities will grow. The treasure hunting field will attract a greater number of reckless and unskilled individuals. Thus, salvage work will be done with more haste and less care.

As I see it, the Black Swan treasure falls under the homesteading principle. There are three possible owners of the Black Swan wreck. The dead (or their descendants), the “community” (supposedly represented by the Spanish government), or Odyssey. First, the dead merchants can no longer claim ownership. In addition, the merchants basically stole the metal for the coins from the Incas making it extremely unlikely the original owners can ever be traced (although some Peruvians are making their own claim). Second, the Spanish Culture Ministry has no legitimate claim to the treasure. Governments cannot legitimately own private property, since everything they have (including tax dollars) has been, in effect, taken at the point of a gun.

Overall, I would argue no one owned the Black Swan wreck prior to discovery. Odyssey, on the other hand, is the rightful owner of its own labor. By salvaging the Black Swan, the company added its labor to the treasure and thus, became its rightful owner.

I’m a treasure hunter. Yet I also consider myself an amateur archaeologist. As such, I’m very sympathetic to the concept of “historical preservation.” However, I don’t think that “stealing” artifacts from the treasure hunters who recover them is the best way to achieve that goal. Instead, I tend to favor the idea of privatizing archaeology.

“In other words, if “archaeological entrepreneurs” were able to sell their wares freely, they would have greater incentive to do better work in order to fulfill the demands of their customers (i.e. museums). Also, in the absence of antiquities laws, private owners would be more likely to share their artifacts with researchers, especially since subsequent research might increase the value of the artifact in question.” – David Meyer, Is Treasure Hunting Immoral

I realize I’m in the minority on this issue. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Freedom has vastly improved the lot of mankind over time. I believe it could do the same thing for the field of archaeology.

The $3 Billion Shipwreck?

In 1942, the S.S. Port Nicholson sank somewhere off the shore of Cape Cod. Now, a treasure hunter by the name of Greg Brooks claims to have found the sunken shipwreck. But that’s not all…not by a long shot.

The $3 Billion Shipwreck?

According to Brooks, the S.S. Port Nicholson was carrying 71 tons of platinum which was supposed to be a payment from the Soviet Union to the U.S. for war supplies. At ~$1,500 an ounce, that means the S.S. Port Nicholson shipwreck is worth roughly $3 billion. Not too shabby! Here’s more on the $3 billion shipwreck from the Huffington Post:

A treasure hunter said Wednesday he has located the wreck of a British merchant ship that was torpedoed by a German U-boat off Cape Cod during World War II while carrying what he claims was a load of platinum bars now worth more than $3 billion. If the claim proves true, it could be one of the richest sunken treasures ever discovered.

But an attorney for the British government expressed doubt the vessel was carrying platinum. And if it was, in fact, laden with precious metals, who owns the hoard could become a matter of international dispute.

Treasure hunter Greg Brooks of Sub Sea Research in Gorham, Maine, announced that a wreck found sitting in 700 feet of water 50 miles offshore is that of the S.S. Port Nicholson, sunk in 1942…

(See the rest on the $3 billion shipwreck at the Huffington Post)

Nazi Treasure & ODESSA?

During World War II, Nazi Germany systematically looted occupied Europe. After the war ended, the Allies attempted to locate the art, gold, and other items in order to return them to their proper owners. How successful were they? Does any of this Nazi treasure remain lost today? Or did it escape into the clutches of ODESSA?

The Chaos Book Club

Today is Day 6 of the Chaos book club. Chaos is an adventure thriller along the lines of Indiana Jones or books written by Clive Cussler, James Rollins, Douglas Preston, or Steve Berry. If you haven’t already done so, please consider picking up a copy at one of the following locations:

Kindle * Nook * Kobo * iBooks * Smashwords * Paperback

Nazi Looting

So, during World War II, Germany conquered much of Europe. While occupying this enormous territory, the Nazis looted on an unprecedented scale. Public and private collections of gold, silver, jewels, paintings, ceramics, and other items were stolen and transported to the Museum Jeu de Paume in Paris. After examination and cataloging, the plunder was forwarded to Germany.

Some of these items were intended for the never-built Führermuseum, which was a planned museum complex for Linz, Austria and a fascinating story in its own right. Other things were appropriated by officials or traded for wartime funds. Initially, most of the plunder was stored in Paris or Munich. However, as defeat became inevitable, the Nazis began to hide artwork and other relics in salt mines, tunnels, caves, and castles. This protected them from bombing raids while also keeping them hidden from the advancing Allied forces.

The Formation of ODESSA

At the same time, Nazi officials were growing increasingly worried. The war was coming to an end and it was only a matter of time before they would be tried for war crimes. Out of this fear sprouted ODESSA (Organisation der ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen). ODESSA was an organization formed by SS officers in 1946. Its purpose was to help fugitive SS members escape to sympathetic countries in South America and the Middle East (this network may have even helped Hitler fake his death and escape Germany). There is some debate about whether ODESSA was a single, centrally-planned organization or a series of loosely-connected groups. Regardless, it’s believed that as many as 10,000 SS members escaped in this fashion.

But ODESSA wasn’t just used for escape. Scholars believe it was also used to move Nazi plunder out of Germany. This plunder may have been intended to fund a sort of “Fourth Reich” consisting of remote Nazi colonies in other countries. Regardless, over 100,000 objects remain missing today. Although a large portion of this sum consists of low-value items, many important and valuable objects have yet to be found.

Nazi Treasure, Odessa, & Chaos

The full extent of ODESSA will most likely never be known. The same goes for the location of much of the missing Nazi plunder. However, in Chaos, I provide a little speculation on the former and a possible answer for the latter.

His face betrayed his steady voice. There was something else driving him, a reason he didn’t want to share. I considered pressing him on it but ultimately, decided to forget it. “Aren’t you worried I’ll steal the treasure?”

“I doubt you could, even if you wanted to. We believe that ODESSA supplied Hartek with nearly half a ton of gold.”

The staggering figure swirled in my brain. “How do you plan to conduct a treasure hunt under New York anyways? The moment the news gets out…and it will…you’ll have a full-fledged riot on your hands.” ~ David Meyer, Chaos

Chaos by David MeyerThat’s right. A gigantic Nazi treasure is buried deep underground, somewhere in the maze of tunnels that rests beneath Manhattan. Recovering it seems easy…until things go very, very wrong.

That’s it for today. Tomorrow, we’ll be taking one step deeper into the mysterious world beneath New York City. But not to visit the tunnels. Instead, we’ll be looking at the denizens who reside there…the legendary Mole People. I hope to see you then!

 

Chaos Book Club

Is Treasure Hunting Immoral?

On June 8, 2007 author Robert Kurson wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, arguing the merits of treasure hunting. It was the latest salvo in a war that stretches back for decades. Was Kurson right? Or are his critics correct that treasure hunting is immoral and that it, along with the black market antiquities trade, should be criminalized?

The Chaos Book Club

Today marks Day 4 of the Chaos book club. Chaos is an adventure thriller along the lines of Indiana Jones or books written by Clive Cussler, James Rollins, Douglas Preston, or Steve Berry. If you haven’t already done so, please consider picking up a copy at one of the following locations:

Kindle * Nook * Kobo * iBooks * Smashwords * Paperback

Treasure Hunting versus Archaeology

Now, Robert Kurson is a legendary figure in the shipwreck world. He spent seven years of his life researching and excavating the mysterious U-869, a Nazi U-boat which sank about sixty miles off the coast of New Jersey. In a 2007 op-ed for the New York Times, he gave a decent overview of both sides of the debate in question. First, the archaeological side…

“[Archaeologists] claim that because the professional treasure hunter’s first priority is to sell what he finds, artifacts will be rushed from shipwreck to market without being carefully preserved or photographed and cataloged to record their historic value. They charge that even if the treasure hunter cared to preserve and catalog his discoveries, he couldn’t, because he is not properly trained to do such subtle and delicate work.” ~ Robert Kurson

And then the treasure hunter side…

“The treasure hunter’s livelihood depends on keeping his discoveries in pristine condition. He knows that coins and gold and pottery must be handled with exquisite care in order to bring the highest possible price. He must use a surgeon’s touch with every artifact, because even that last lonely vase has value if it is deftly handled. The roughest and toughest of these treasure hunters have some of the gentlest hands in the world.” ~ Robert Kurson

Is Treasure Hunting Immoral?

The Archaeology vs. Treasure Hunting debate is a bitter one. A cursory search on the internet reveals scores of articles (mostly written by archaeologists) on the topic. A particularly stinging attack on treasure hunters is offered by Texas A&M’s Ship Reconstruction Laboratory. Here’s a sample…

“1. Can treasure hunters do archaeology with high standards?

No. The aim of treasure hunting is profit and treasure hunting companies depend on investor’s money. In a normal competitive environment investors prefer companies that yield better returns on their investments. It is an indisputable fact that careful excavations are more expensive than the quick salvage of artifacts with market value, and companies that try to follow good archaeological standards will not survive long in any informed market.”

The above argument seems powerful at first. But upon closer inspection, it’s shown to be fatally flawed. I don’t doubt that “careful excavations” are more expensive than treasure hunts. But this doesn’t necessarily imply they produce better work. In general, non-profit operations pay far less attention to the cost side of the equation than profit-seeking ones. So, this might really be nothing more than better cost management on the treasure hunting side.

Another popular argument levied by archaeologists is that they are working for the public good. They believe that artifacts should be analyzed for historical purposes and stored in museums rather than sold off to wealthy collectors. While it sounds noble, this is hardly the case in real life. For example, a 2001 BBC article discusses a strange situation at the Crimean Eastern Institute:

“The cramped offices of the Crimea’s Eastern Institute are crammed with the archaeologists’ legal finds – each item painstakingly cleaned and catalogued. Bizarrely, the precious gold and silver belt buckles and jewellery are stored in cigarette packets or old medicine boxes. There is no money here for anything else, even though the antiquities themselves are worth tens of thousands of dollars.” ~ Battle to Save Crimea’s Treasures – BBC News

These artifacts aren’t being researched nor are they being put on public display. And this isn’t unique to Crimea. Similar scenarios take place across the globe.

Still, the archaeological position remains consistent. Treasure hunting is an immoral activity and should be treated as such. Thus, archaeologists have sought the assistance of governments in order to quell the activities of hunters.

Privatizing Archaeology?

Is there a way to solve this endless debate? One particularly innovative suggestion comes courtesy of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. In his article, “In Defense of Tomb Robbing,” Adam Young suggests that one solution is to, in essence, “privatize archaeology.” He argues that this would force today’s treasure hunters to acquire greater excavation skills in order to sell artifacts to “museums, universities, and private collectors.” In other words, if “archaeological entrepreneurs” were able to sell their wares freely, they would have greater incentive to do better work in order to fulfill the demands of their customers (i.e. museums). Also, in the absence of antiquities laws, private owners would be more likely to share their artifacts with researchers, especially since subsequent research might increase the value of the artifact in question.

Young further points out that governmental action may be having the opposite of its intended effect. By criminalizing ownership of certain artifacts and employing police to chase down treasure hunters, governments “have attracted exactly those individuals who are the most reckless and unskilled and who concentrate on those artifacts that are the most valuable — to the detriment of historical and scientific research.”

Interestingly enough, his points can be seen today. Shipwreck hunting is, in most cases, legal. This has given rise to companies like Odyssey Marine Exploration, a for-profit corporation that salvages deep sea wrecks. Unlike black market treasure hunters, Odyssey is a highly professional organization. It employs distinguished archaeologists, performs meticulous studies, and even publishes books and reports on its findings.

Some archaeologists say this is not enough. They point to Filipe Castro, who excavated a merchant ship off the coast of Portugal. Castro has “published two scientific books and 26 articles on the wreck, and has completed six archaeological reports.” Perhaps they are right (or perhaps Castro is guilty of severe over-analysis). But regardless, Odyssey has clearly found value in conducting its own scientific research.

Treasure Hunting, Archaeology, & Chaos

The Treasure Hunting vs. Archaeology debate is one I doubt will ever end. Although Odyssey does more scholarly work than any treasure hunting company in history, they are still scorned by the vast majority of archaeologists. Personally, I find the debate fascinating and it served as inspiration for the creation of my hero, Cy Reed.

“I looked at Diane. The rows of seats were like a gulf between us, a gulf that grew with every word she said to the audience. She stood on the respectable side of exploration, shoulder-to-shoulder with archaeologists, scientists and other academics. I used to stand with her. But these days, I increasingly found myself on the other side, in solidarity with the treasure hunters, the smugglers, and the black market dealers.” ~ David Meyer, Chaos

Chaos by David Meyer

Cy Reed is a former urban archaeologist who used to work in Manhattan. Due to a terrible tragedy, he decided to uproot his life and becomes a nomad, working as a treasure hunter. At the beginning of the book, he returns to Manhattan in order to search for a missing friend. He is forced to attempt to reconcile the two sides of his soul: the archaeologist and the treasure hunter. Needless to say, this inner conflict drives much of his actions.

That’s it for today. Make sure you come back tomorrow when we’ll delve into a piece of strange history…namely, a highly controversial Allied World War II project known as Operation Paperclip. I hope to see you then!

 

Chaos Book Club

The Great Train Robbery?

On August 8, 1963, a crew of 17 men hijacked the Royal Mail train in Buckinghamshire, England. After taking the train to Bridego Bridge, they removed £2.6 million from it. Then they vanished into the night. Were they captured? And what happened to the money from the Great Train Robbery?

The Chaos Book Club

So, today marks Day 3 of the Chaos book club. Chaosis an adventure thriller along the lines of Indiana Jones or books written by Clive Cussler, James Rollins, Douglas Preston, or Steve Berry. If you haven’t already done so, please consider picking up a copy at one of the following locations:

Kindle * Nook * Kobo * iBooks * Smashwords * Paperback

The Great Train Robbery

So, in the wee hours of the morning of August 8, 1963, conductor Jack Mills stopped his Royal Mail train at a mysterious red signal. His second, David Whitby, attempted to call the signalman from a nearby telephone only to discover that the line had been cut. Suddenly, fifteen robbers swarmed the locomotive.

They forced Mills to drive the train to Bridego Bridge and proceeded to attack the “High Value Packages” carriage. Guards offered some resistance but were quickly overwhelmed. Over the next twenty-five minutes, the robbers unloaded 121 mail sacks from the train and brought them into a waiting truck. The sacks contained £2.6 million in bank notes (roughly £40 million or $63 million in today’s money), many of which were going to be removed from circulation due to old age.

The robbers transported the money to Leatherslade Farm, which was located about 27 miles from the scene of the crime. They divided it into 17 shares (15 robbers, 2 informants) and used it to play Monopoly. Soon after, they fled the farm but they left behind plenty of fingerprints which were discovered by the police. By December, police had arrested nearly a dozen of the robbers as well as numerous associates.

What happened to the Money?

The ensuing trial was marked by controversy. One robber was freed for lack of evidence. The other ten robbers, for the most part, received 20-30 years in prison, far longer than the typical sentences handed out to murderers. Most egregiously, two innocent men were wrongfully convicted and given stiff sentences for a crime they didn’t commit.

As of today, seven robbers have escaped punishment, at least for a little while. As I mentioned, one man was freed. Two men escaped from prison – one stayed on the run for three years while the other waited until 2001 to turn himself in. Three robbers escaped as did a mysterious informant known only as “Ulsterman.”

Out of the original £2.6 million haul, about £0.4 million was recovered. The location of the remaining money has led some to believe that there is a hidden fortune, still waiting to be discovered. This is possible but unlikely. Most scholars believe that this money was spent fleeing the police or paying for lawyers. Also, large portions were probably spent by family members or were stolen outright.

The Great Train Robbery remains a partly-unsolved mystery. At least four participants were never captured. There is also the matter of the missing money, assuming that any of it is still around.

The Great Train Robbery & Chaos

The Great Train Robbery of 1963 was a monumental crime and has inspired countless books and films. On a more personal basis, it served as a partial inspiration for the prologue of Chaos.

“A loud high-pitched shriek reverberated across the tunnel, ping-ponging from wall to wall. Jenson glanced to his right. The Omega stood quietly in the semi-darkness.

Now what?

Metal rasped against metal. Then, three shadows hopped out of the subway car’s side and ventured to the front. ‘Running rails,’ one of the figures announced. ‘How the hell…?” ~ David Meyer, Chaos

Chaos by David Meyer

I’ve always been fascinated by train robberies and the 1963 case is particularly interesting, thanks to the large cast of characters and the unsolved mysteries that still surround it. So, when I first sat down to write Chaos, I knew I wanted to set the stage with my own “Great Subway Train Robbery.” But instead of money, my robbers make off with a different sort of cargo…one that could wreak havoc not just on New York, but on the world as well…

Well, that’s it for today. Make sure you come back tomorrow when we will discuss a topic near to my heart…the conflict between Treasure Hunting and Archaeology.

 

Chaos Book Club

The Silver Shipwreck?

In 1941, the SS Gairsoppa was heading from India to Britain. Suddenly, a Nazi U-Boat appeared on the horizon. It fired on the Gairsoppa, sending the massive cargo ship to the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean. Now, that ship is on the verge of being recovered. But it’s no ordinary cargo ship. Its holds are believed to contain a treasure…one of the largest treasures in maritime history.

The Sinking of the SS Gairsoppa?

In 1941, the Gairsoppa left India with silver ingots, pig iron, and tea which it intended to bring back to Britain. It was initially part of a convoy. However, with coal running low and winds running high, the vessel split off on its own and headed for Ireland’s Galway Harbor. On February 17, the U-101 spotted the Gairsoppa and subsequently torpedoed her. She sank in less than twenty minutes, leaving only a handful of survivors.

The vessel sank in 15,400 feet of water, taking with it nearly 80 crewmen…and a priceless treasure. It was believed to be carrying ~240 tons of silver, which amounts to a staggering ~$243 million. Earlier this week, the famed treasure hunting / salvage firm Odyssey Marine Exploration announced that it had discovered the shipwreck.

Odyssey Marine Exploration plans to Salvage the SS Gairsoppa?

Next spring, Odyssey will attempt to recover the treasure in what is already being called the “deepest and largest ever retrieval of a precious cargo.” According to its contract with the United Kingdom, Odyssey will keep 80% of the silver lode. The rest will go to the government, which as you might expect is “desperately looking for new sources of income.” In fact, Odyssey is being encouraged to find more valuable shipwrecks for the UK government.

But first, Odyssey will focus on completing its salvage of the Gairsoppa. It will be a difficult task due to the extreme depth of the wreck. But Odyssey doesn’t seem too worried.

“We were fortunate to find the shipwreck sitting upright, with the holds open and easily accessible. This should enable us to unload cargo through the hatches as would happen with a floating ship alongside a cargo terminal.” ~ Greg Stemm, Odyssey CEO

Will the Gairsoppa turn out to be the richest shipwreck of all time? Probably not. The mysterious “Black Swan,” which was also salvaged by Odyssey, is rumored to have been carrying treasure worth ~$500 million in today’s dollars. But the bigger question is what will happen to the Gairsoppa’s treasure once its recovered.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

After secretly salvaging the Black Swan, Spain cried foul and demanded that the wreck be handed over to it. This happened regardless of the fact that the Spanish government’s ownership of the wreck was questionable at best and that Spain had spent none of its own time, money, or effort to recover it. Surprisingly, numerous U.S. courts sided with Spain and ruled that Odyssey must turn the Black Swan over to its government.

But those judgments have come under scrutiny and deservedly so. Documents provided by Wikileaks showed that the U.S. government attempted to conspire with Spain in the matter. More specifically, it offered to help Spain retrieve the Black Swan. In exchange, it requested that a painting by Camille Pissarro, which was stolen by the Nazis and now hangs in Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, be returned to an American citizen named Claude Cassirer.

“The possibility that someone in the U.S. government came up with this perfidious offer to sacrifice Odyssey, its thousands of shareholders, and the many jobs created by the company in exchange for the return of one painting to one individual is hard to believe.” ~ Odyssey Marine Exploration

Will the cash-starved British government, despite its agreement with Odyssey, attempt to seize the bulk of the treasure for itself? Let’s hope not. But until then, we can only wait and wonder.

Lost Da Vinci Masterpiece Discovered?

On June 6, 1505, Leonardo da Vinci began to paint the Battle of Anghiari in the Palazzo Vecchio. The 12 by 15 foot mural depicted a Florentine victory over the Milanese. According to the famous Italian painter Giorgio Vasari, da Vinci never finished the project. New evidence suggests that not only was the painting completed but that it was covered up by none other than Vasari himself!

The Lost Leonardo da Vinci?

The Battle of Anghiari is often referred to as “The Lost Leonardo.” At the time of its creation, it was considered his finest work. Today it’s remembered via a few sketches done by da Vinci as well as a Peter Paul Rubens drawing which was apparently inspired by a copy of the original work (Ruben’s drawing is pictured above).

Over fifty years after da Vinci stopped working on the Battle of Anghiari, Vasari was hired to remodel the room where it was located. In the process, the mural vanished. Later art historians believed that Da Vinci’s painting was gone forever.

Did Giorgio Vasari save The Battle of Anghiari?

But in 1861, workers removed a wall from Santa Maria Novella. The wall had been adorned with Vasari’s Madonna of the Rosary. Behind it, they discovered a 1428 piece by Masaccio entitled Trinità. Rather than destroy Masaccio’s fresco, Vasari had covered it up with a false wall and in the process, saved it for future generations. In 2000, Carlo Pedretti “proposed that Vasari saved Leonardo’s masterpiece just as he had Masaccio’s.”

Art diagnostic expert Maurizio Seracini took the suggestion to heart. In 2005, he used  sophisticated radar equipment to discover “a narrow cavity behind the Vasari fresco Battle of Marciano.” In true Da Vinci Code fashion, he also found an inscription from Vasari on the Battle of Marciano. It reads “Cerca, trova.” Or, “Seek and you shall find.”

Seracini hopes to locate the work by using a “special copper-crystal mosaic gamma ray diffraction lens.” The camera would fire neutrons through the existing wall. If da Vinci’s painting is behind it, then the metals in the paint will emit gamma rays allowing Seracini to map the strokes. An ambitious fund-raising effort is underway to pay for the camera. But with just 32 days to go, it’s short by $244,000. If you’re interested in donating to the cause, visit here.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

It remains uncertain whether or not the painting was actually hidden away in the first place. And even if Vasari did store it behind a false wall, experts believe that it could be  in extremely poor shape. Still, the search is worthwhile. For if Seracini is right, then what may have been da Vinci’s greatest masterpiece will get a second opportunity to see the light of day…and to dazzle the world.

Blackbeard’s Ship…Or Not?

In 1718, Blackbeard the pirate ran his ship Queen Anne’s Revenge aground at Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina. In 1996, a shipwreck was discovered in the area. Is this Blackbeard’s fabled frigate?

Blackbeard & Queen Anne’s Revenge?

Blackbeard, whose real name was probably Edward Thatch, is perhaps the most famous pirate of all time. After the War of Spanish Succession, he joined the crew of Benjamin Hornigold. On November 28, 1717, Captain Hornigold captured the La Concorde which at that time was a slave ship. He turned it over to Blackbeard. Blackbeard renamed the ship Queen Anne’s Revenge, which may be an indication of his allegiance to the Stuarts. He mounted 22 guns on the ship and began a reign of terror unmatched in pirate history.

In 1718, he staged an incredible blockade of Charleston, South Carolina, in which he ransacked about nine ships as they attempted to leave the port. Shortly afterward, he mysteriously ran the Queen Anne’s Revenge aground and took off for North Carolina in a smaller vessel named the Adventure. Some historians believe this was a deliberate move by Blackbeard to disperse his crew and secure a greater share of the spoils for him and his friends.

A Mysterious Shipwreck?

For more than two centuries, the ship remained lost. Then, in 1996, Intersal discovered a shipwreck in the area. Since that time, extensive excavations have uncovered more than 16,000 artifacts. While the ship is generally believed to be the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources has always been cautious in its statements…until now.

On August 29, National Geographic reported that the shipwreck “has been confirmed as that of the infamous 18th-century pirate Blackbeard.”

“There was not one aha moment. There was a collection of moments and a deduction based on the evidence.” ~ Claire Aubel, North Carolina Maritime Museums, Public Relations Coordinator

According to the article, the main evidence used in the identification was “the sheer size of the wreck and the many weapons that were found in the rubble.” The rest of the evidence is even more circumstantial. For example, apothecary weights found on the wreck could belong to the ship’s original surgeon when it was still in French hands. Some traces of gold found among lead shot could have been concealed by a French sailor trying to hide it from Blackbeard. On the bright side, artifact dates appear to be in the right ballpark. Underwater archaeologists found “a bell engraved with the date 1705.” Previously announced discoveries include a brass coin weight cast sometime between 1702-1714 as well as a wine glass made to commemorate the 1714 coronation of King George I.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Still, I have to admit that I find this “confirmation” strange. There remains no real hard evidence to link this shipwreck to Blackbeard. And over the years, some researchers have called into question the so-called mountain of circumstantial evidence. For example…

Rodgers, Richards and Lusardi challenged the assumption that the many guns indicated a heavily armed pirate ship. All ships during the period were similarly armed, they said, and the number and and caliber of the guns suggest that the wreck was probably a merchant ship. They said only 14 guns were probably mounted on the Beaufort shipwreck, while the others were too small to damage a ship or were stowed in the hold as ballast. The number of those mounted is what would be expected on an average merchant vessel during peacetime in the first half of the 18th century, they said. Varying historical accounts say the Queen Anne’s Revenge carried 22, 36 and up to 40 guns. In addition, the archaeologists said, one cannon bears a rough mark they interpreted as 1730 or possibly 1737. If that is the date of the cannon’s manufacture, they said, it would eliminate the wreck as the Queen Anne’s Revenge.

Now, that article is a couple of years old, but I imagine at least some of it is still relevant today. Furthermore, the timing of this announcement raises awkward questions. According to David Moore, curator of nautical archaeology at the North Carolina Maritime Museum, there were two reasons behind it. First, the museum didn’t want to entitle its new exhibit something along the lines of “Artifacts From the Purported Queen Anne’s Revenge.” Second and more disturbing, the confirmation will “help the museum secure private funding to continue excavating the wreck.”

The shipwreck in question may or may not be the Queen Anne’s Revenge. It seems to fit the profile and time period. And I understand that identifying the wreck is an extremely difficult task. Hard evidence may not even exist, although I’m holding out hope that divers will recover an engraved bell or something along those lines. Regardless, based on the obvious conflict of interest here, this confirmation seems meaningless to me. A better exhibit title? Additional funding to make up for state budget cuts? Good lord.Supposedly, there are 750,000 remaining artifacts aboard the wreck. Recovering them all could take an additional 15 years. Let’s hope one of those artifacts serves as “the smoking gun.” Because at this point, I’m just not convinced.

The Double Eagle Scandal

In May 1933, the U.S. Mint printed the very last Saint-Gaudens double eagle. These $20 gold coins were never officially released to the public. A few managed to avoid destruction and the U.S. government has spent more than 60 years and untold millions of dollars tracking them down. Why is the 1933 double eagle the most controversial coin in history?

President Roosevelt Seizes America’s Gold

On April 5, 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 6102 which, in effect, forced American citizens to turn in “all gold coin, gold bullion, and gold certificates” to the Federal Reserve. On January 30, 1934, Congress followed up that Order with the United States Gold Reserve Act, which allowed the President to seize the Federal Reserve’s newly-acquired gold supply. The federal government built Fort Knox in 1936 in order to store its newfound treasure.

The U.S. Government Declares War on the 1933 Double Eagles

Suddenly, gold coins became a thing of the past. The director of the Philadelphia Mint ordered the recently pressed 1933 double eagles to be melted down into gold bars and sent off to Fort Knox, a task which would take several years to complete. Only two of the coins were slated to survive. They were sent to the Smithsonian for safekeeping.

But, double eagles began to pop up. One coin made its way into the hands of Egypt’s King Farouk. Another one was offered via auction. The Secret Service quickly decided that someone had stolen the double eagles from the Philadelphia Mint. They actually debated the “advisability of trying to get [the] coin back from King Farouk.” However, since World War II was in progress and Egypt was an important American ally, they decided not to risk infuriating him. However, they did seize the other coin, an act which launched a decades-long war against private ownership of the 1933 double eagles.

“The government has been fanatical about seizing and destroying these coins. They’re famous because the government has been seizing them since the 1940s.” ~ Robert W. Hoge, American Numismatic Society

The 1933 Double Eagle becomes the Most Expensive Coin in History

The Secret Service traced the coins to a Philadelphia-based jeweler named Israel Switt. Switt claimed that he didn’t have any records pertaining to the eagles. However, he did state that they weren’t purchased from a Mint employee. The Justice Department disagreed but was unable to press charges due to the statute of limitations.

For the moment, the investigation was at an impasse. But after King Farouk was overthrown, his double eagle found its way into the hands of a coin dealer named Stephen Fenton. Fenton attempted to sell the coin in 1996 but the end buyer betrayed him. Secret Service agents rushed the room and seized the double eagle.

Incredibly, Fenton was charged with “conspiring to convert to his own use and attempt to sell property of the United States.” No one seemed to care that FDR’s ridiculous and unconstitutional Executive Order had been repealed in 1974 by President Ford. And the fact that there was no proof the coins were stolen in the first place didn’t seem to strike anyone as strange.

Fortunately, the charges were quickly dropped. And eventually, Fenton and the Justice Department agreed to auction off the coin and split the proceeds. After an extended publicity campaign, it sold for a grand total of $7.6 million, making it the most expensive coin in history until the 2010 sale of a 1794 silver dollar. The anonymous buyer lent it to the American Numismatic Society, which in turn lent it to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

The Double Eagle Double-Cross?

The story of the 1933 double eagle should’ve ended with that auction. But there was still another chapter to come. In 2004, Israel Switt’s only child Joan Langbord along with her son Roy discovered ten 1933 double eagles in a safety deposit box. She took the coins to the U.S. Mint for authentication. The Mint agreed but ended up pulling a fast one. It refused to return the property and instead told the media that it had “recovered” ten additional coins.

The Langbord family sued. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jacqueline Romero claimed that any 1933 double eagles that left the Mint did so illegally. The Langbord family argued that most of the Philadelphia Mint records, which were ill-kept, had been destroyed in 1978. Also, no surviving witnesses remained. Finally, they identified a “window of opportunity” where Israel Switt could’ve obtained the coins in a legal manner.Shockingly, the jury sided with the government. While the Langbord’s are expected to appeal the verdict, the story has come to an end, at least for now. And government representatives are quite pleased with their success.

“People of the United States of America have been vindicated.” ~ Jacqueline Romero, Assistant U.S. Attorney

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

The government spent more than six decades vigorously pursuing these coins. They confiscated private property. They treated citizens very differently, allowing Fenton to profit from his coin while not giving the same courtesy to the Langbords. And they paid untold millions of tax dollars throughout the investigation as well as during the court case. That leaves me with one question…Do you feel vindicated?

The Mysterious Treasure of Oak Island

Oak Island is a small island located four miles off the coast of Novia Scotia. It is the home of the infamous “money pit.” For more than two centuries, treasure hunters have attempted to unearth its treasure. Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt participated in one expedition decades before he became President of the United States. Does Oak Island really hold a treasure? And if so, how has it managed to elude treasure hunters for so long?

The Oak Island Money Pit?

In 1763, residents in nearby Chester reported “strange lights and fires” on Oak Island.  Then in 1795, a 16-year old boy discovered a circular depression on the island’s southeastern end. With the help of two friends, he began to dig and uncovered a stone platform and two layers of logs. Although they found nothing, they would return to the island eight years later with the Onslow Company. They found platforms of logs every ten feet as well as charcoal at 40 feet, putty at 50 feet, and coconut at 60 feet. At 80-90 feet, they recovered a large stone with strange symbols on it. One translation of these symbols read, “Forty feet below, two million pounds lie buried.” The group continued to dig but at about 98 feet, the pit mysteriously flooded with seawater.

In 1849, the Truro Company dug a new shaft parallel to the flooded one. This shaft also flooded. In 1851, workers made an astonishing discovery. A nearby beach was fake. Someone had removed the original clay and created a drainage system. Round stones were covered with dead grass and coconut fibres and then topped off with sand. Five drains were connected to the area, leading to speculation that whoever built the pit had also constructed an ingenious flood-trap. The tides caused seawater to flow into the pit while the grass and fibres kept sand from clogging the drains. Bailing the pit out proved useless as more water just rushed in to take its place.

An 1861 effort by the Oak Island Association caused the bottom of the original shaft to collapse into what may have been a natural cavern. Over a dozen separate expeditions would follow, leaving the area around the Money Pit a nearly unworkable mess of mud and debris. Starting in 1967, Triton Alliance, Ltd. used a steel caisson to excavate 235 feet into the ground. Supposedly, workers lowered cameras into a natural cave and recorded images of chests and a human hand. But the shaft collapsed and yet another expedition walked away empty-handed.

What’s Hidden on Oak Island?

Like many treasure stories, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. Early accounts mention marks every ten feet. Later accounts change these marks into wood platforms. The stone with strange symbols on it has not been seen since the early 1900s and the corresponding translation remains highly controversial. Most importantly, after so many excavations, its impossible to tell if structures within the pit were created by the original builders or by earlier expeditions.

Numerous theories abound as to what might be hidden on Oak Island. Everything from pirate treasure to Shakespeare’s true identity to the Ark of the Covenant has been speculated to sit at the bottom of the money pit. And of course, there’s also the very strong possibility that the pit is nothing more than a natural sinkhole which leads to an underground cave (similar geological features exist on the mainland). The flooding, in this scenario, was caused by underground cavities filled with water. Dye tests conducted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution add support to that theory. However, the artificial beach as well as other clues make it hard to deny the possibility that someone built the pit centuries ago, presumably to hide something within it.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Recently, Oak Island Tours, Inc. began using electrical resistivity in order to detect underground tunnels. The process involves pulsing current through the ground in order to find unusual structures. According to Rick Lagina, the process has proved fruitful.

“There are interesting anomalies, yes…There are more than several sites that we are very excited about.” ~ Rick Lagina

Lagina and his fellow treasure hunters plan to analyze the data in order to determine promising drilling spots. So, is this just the latest in a long line of failures? Or will Oak Island Tours, Inc. finally get to the bottom of the money pit mystery? Either way, we should know the answer very soon.