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Modern Salvage Company Finds Treasure Trove at Sea

An American company is in the process of determining the value of a haul of sunken treasure, thought to be the biggest ever discovered. Odyssey Marine Exploration says it is examining more than half-a-million coins from the shipwreck as part of a find that could net it around half a billion dollars. The bounty has sparked public interest in the controversial business of treasure hunting. Steve Mort reports for VOA from the Florida city of Tampa where Odyssey Marine Exploration is based.

The image to the left shows part of what is probably the biggest haul of shipwreck treasure ever found -- the result of a secret operation code-named "Black Swan", off the coast of Europe.

Odyssey won't reveal the identity of the ship, or even when it sank, to avoid giving clues to other treasure hunters. Odyssey will only say it went down in international waters.

In the crates are 17 tons of silver and gold coins and other valuables arriving in the U.S., destined for a secret location.

Mark Gordon, from Odyssey Marine Exploration, says an expert in 17th century coins estimated the value of the haul. "He looked at a representative sample of the coins and in amongst the group that he saw he was able to determine that there were values ranging from $400 to $4,000 for individual coins, and the mean value of the group that he looked at was about $1,000," says Gordon.

Those crates could hold about half a billion dollars. In the U.S., a big media splash about the "Black Swan" hoard has triggered a new fascination in pirate ships and treasure.

Eugene Holseybrook came to see a company exhibit in Tampa. "I like it. I've actually visited some of the exhibits and find it very interesting," he said.

Odyssey estimates there are some three million shipwrecks worldwide. The company combs the seabed using a special underwater vessel: operating it costs $35,000 a day.

If treasure is found, the company determines if anyone may have a claim to it -- unlikely in the case of a pirate-ship -- then petitions a U.S. court to get ownership.

Odyssey's Vice President of Attractions, Roger Kurz, says once the court rules in favor, the bounty can be sold. "We send our Zeus, our remotely operated vehicle, down to pick up more artifacts, then we put them into the conservation phase," says Kurz. "And if we find one, or two, or three items then we would put them in the Odyssey collection which we keep forever. If we find more than that then we put them for sale so that guests throughout the world can retain a piece of history."

Odyssey is the only publicly traded treasure-hunting company in the U.S., but the business is unpredictable. It reported a net loss of $3.8 million in the first quarter of 2007.

However, Executive Vice President Mark Gordon is upbeat. "We're inventing an industry and I think we may be at the point now where maybe the oil industry was near the turn of the century. Our financials are public, anyone can look at them. We run a very episodic business -- when you have a find, and you can monetize the find, you're very profitable."

Critics, such as the Institute of Field Archaeologists, accuse private companies like Odyssey of "ransacking" shipwrecks for profit. And Odyssey is in a legal wrangle with the Spanish government over the Black Swan treasure. Spain says it might be one of their galleons that went down in its territorial waters.

But Odyssey says it will press on with its work - and has even teamed up with the Walt Disney Corporation to cater to the public appetite for sunken treasure.