The hundred-year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic will likely lend renewed interest in deep-sea treasure hunting. Companies including Galleon Ventures and Sub Sea Research have made billions in using bleeding-edge technology to recover long-lost treasure at the bottom of the ocean.
According to UNESCO, there may be three million sunken ships around the globe. While not all of them are filled with Spanish gold and silver, there have been enough big scores that hedge funds and other large investors have jumped on the treasure-hunting bandwagon.
Here are some of the recent finds:
- Sub Sea Research: 1.7 million ounces–62,500 pounds–of platinum aboard a merchant ship that sank in 1942.
- Odyssey Marine Exploration: 17 tons of silver and gold coins from Spanish galleons that sank in 1804.
- Galleon Ventures and Seaquest International: a haul of treasure and artifacts recovered from a 17th century Spanish ship.
The reward for high-tech treasure hunters — pirate’s gold! Gold of the conquistadors!— is commensurate with the risk. Although these new treasure hunters are using technology developed for the oil and gas industries, these wrecks are deep and not easily accessible. Additionally, when there’s this much treasure in dispute, ownership gets, well, murky. The Odyssey find was turned over to the Spanish government (and this is in dispute as well, since most of the silver and gold was mined in Peru, which also placed a claim on the treasure). The Sub Sea salvage may also be the subject of legal claims.
Archeologists and other scientists criticize the treasure hunters, saying they can despoil cultural sites. Artifacts end up in private collections rather than in museums. Treasure hunters counter that they are bringing to the surface what had been thought lost forever.
Maybe it’s not the easiest way to get a return on an investment, but the romanticism of treasure hunting is part of the allure, even for hedge-fund managers.