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Odyssey Marine scores big with British silver haul

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Published:   |   Updated: July 23, 2013 at 06:17 AM

There will be no Spanish Inquisition of Odyssey Marine this time.

The Tampa-based treasure hunter recently tallied up the haul after pulling up roughly 61 tons of silver from the wreck of the World War II-era British freighter Gairsoppa, and the metal could be worth about $34 million based on current prices.

Luckily, Odyssey already has an arrangement with the British government, which essentially hired Odyssey to seek out and recover treasure from lost British ships, and that arrangement has a pre-determined formula for dividing the spoils. Twenty percent goes to the British, 80 percent plus costs goes to Odyssey.

Odyssey-controlled underwater rovers descended more than three miles down off the coast of Ireland, cut into the metal holds of the Gairsoppa, and retrieved the haul.

Britain takes a share of the haul because the government became the de facto insurer of British shipping industry during WWII, so any recovered loot basically goes to repay those insurance settlements. The Gairsoppa was traveling from Calcutta to Britain, full of tea and treasure when a German U-boat spotted and sunk her.

"The success of the SS Gairsoppa recovery project at 15,000 feet opens up new opportunities for us in the deep ocean and we are continuing to explore potential projects to go after," said Odyssey President and Chief Operating Officer Mark Gordon. "Last year we also recovered 48 tons of silver from that shipwreck, so now we have more than 99 percent of the documented insured cargo recovered from that shipwreck."

That civil arrangement for recovery between the British and Odyssey could hardly be more different than the saga Odyssey endured after discovering a half billion dollars in gold and silver in 2007 in what turned out to be the wreck of a Spanish frigate, the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, which British warships blew to pieces off Portugal's Atlantic coast in 1804.

Odyssey recovered the Mercedes treasure and brought it to a Sarasota precious coin preservation site, only to face a furious lawsuit by the Spanish government that claimed the treasure was its property. The case went from Tampa to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the Spanish prevailed with an argument that the treasure was military cargo and not civilian. That ultimately led to a dramatic airlift of the treasure from MacDill Air Force Base last year, and stiff scolding by Spanish diplomats.

Moving forward, Odyssey says it has scores of other sunken ships to seek out, and more governments are coming forward to negotiate British-style arrangements that allow Odyssey to recover their lost goods. Other private shipping companies are lining up for a deal where 90 percent of the recovered value goes to Odyssey. In the meantime, Odyssey gear is on its way back to the North Atlantic, to the site of the British ship Mantola, which went down in World War I with 600,000 ounces of silver aboard.

rmullins@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7919

Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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