A Short Check List for Investors in Treasure Hunting Ventures

by Filipe Castro


There are many types of treasure hunters, and to try to divide them into categories would be a difficult and futile enterprise.  However, there seems to be a wide consensus that among the treasure hunting community there is only a small, silent minority, largely unnoticed by the general public, whose work is to find and rescue precious cargoes.  The larger, noisier majority of treasure hunters advertises its treasures in the press long before they have been found. They are specialized in the hunt for the savings of potential investors.  It reminds of    P. T. Barnum and his favorite saying: "a sucker is born every minute," when reading all the nonsense that finds its way to books and magazines.  I remember reading in the 1990s that a treasure hunter was using a psychic to locate sunken treasures.

Stories vary, but the fact is that most treasure hunting ventures are not profitable and therefore most investors never see their money back.  Why?  The following list is a contribution to the understanding of the complexity and risks of the treasure hunting business.  Excluding the problems related to the conservation, marketing and sale of archaeological artifacts, successful treasure hunters must manage to:

1. Find reliable information about a valuable cargo shipped in a particular vessel that sunk;

2. Make sure that the cargo was actually loaded on that particular vessel;

3. Make sure that the ship did sink (beached ships were invariably salvaged);

4. Make sure that the cargo was not unloaded on a port before the shipwreck took place;

5. Make sure that the cargo was not saved (transshipped) right before the shipwreck;

6. Make sure that the cargo was not jettisoned right before the shipwreck;

7. Make sure that the cargo was not salvaged immediately after the shipwreck;

8. Make sure that the cargo was not salvaged at a later date;

9. Make sure that time did not damage the cargo;

10. Make sure there are no claims on the shipwreck or its cargo;

11. Make sure he has precise data to narrow the place where the shipwreck occurred;

12. Find the shipwreck (often the most difficult part);

13. Make sure that he actually found that particular shipwreck;

14. If he ever finds anything, make sure that the cargo is not spilled over too large an area;

15. Make sure that treasure hunting is legal, or at least that the local authorities are cooperative;

16. Make sure the country in whose waters the shipwreck lays is politically stable;

17. Make sure he has all the necessary means to salvage a substantial part of the cargo;

18. Make sure he gets away with destroying, or abandoning all non valuable items, which consume time and money, and are not accepted for sale by most auction houses;

19. Make sure he has safe port to disembark the cargo;

20. Make sure he has a good lawyer;

21. Make sure he has not spent by now much more money than he can make with the sale of valuable artifacts.

I borrowed these rules partly from a longer list written by one of the most effective of all treasures hunters, Robert Stenuit, who has found, rescued, and sold more treasure than we will ever know, with the help of COMEX, the French underwater contractor.  In L'or à la tonne, L'exploitation des trésors englouties (Grenoble: Glénat, 1990) one of the best of his many - and all very good! - books, Robert Sténuit defined a check list with 27 points and called it "Rules of the Game."  These are the 21 things a treasure hunter must make sure he knows before he engages in any operation of salvage of a sunken cargo.  As a very intelligent and pragmatic man, he footnotes these rules with a very important factor: luck.  Before even thinking about giving your money to a treasure hunter please remember: your treasure hunter can be honest in his intentions, vow to work legally, do everything "right", .and fail!


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