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Gregg Stemm: is taking treasure from shipwrecks piracy?

May 21, 2009

 

These days the word conjures up images of audacious hijackings of container ships off the horn of Africa, but when, in October 2007, César Antonio Molina told reporters: “There have always been navies . . . to combat pirates”, Spain’s culture minister was referring not to Somali gangs but to the American entrepreneur Greg Stemm.

Stemm is probably the only “pirate” to run a publicly quoted company, filing financial statements with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). These reveal that he earns $350,000 a year on top of his $6.14 million shareholding, and that his investors include the founder of Dollar Car Rental, a former Finance Minister of Bermuda and Barclays Global Investors.

A fusion of Jacques Cousteau, Ernest Hemingway and Donald Trump, the 52-year-old is Chairman of Odyssey Marine Exploration (OME), which specialises in finding treasure-laden wrecks. Stemm has the precise handshake and manners of a Southern gentleman, but when we meet in London he is itching to get back to his diesel-smelling dive ship Odyssey Explorer in Cornwall, and what he calls “mucking about on the ocean”. And while he denies being a bounty hunter, he admits having no problem “marrying archaeology with a business model”.

In 2003, OME discovered the American Civil War-era SS Republic, 1,700 ft below sea level, 100 miles southeast of Savannah, Georgia. The 14,000 objects that were subsequently recovered from the paddlewheel steamship, along with 51,000 gold and silver coins, have so far netted more than £29 million in salvage fees and sales, one of the richest treasure hauls ever. A year earlier, Stemm signed a deal with the British Government to dive on HMS Sussex, an 80-gun English warship that was lost in 1664 off the coast of Gibraltar. OME believes that its cargo has “a potentially-substantial numismatic value”.

“The deal is this,” he tells me. “We pay for all the exploration and recovery costs, conservation and publication and then 80 per cent of the value of everything we find up to $45 million comes to Odyssey, then it’s 50-50 up to $500 million then 60 per cent in favour of the British Government above that. If they want the entire collection, then they write us a cheque. It’s a very good model. It’s not unlike if you find something with a metal detector in your backyard.” Only Stemm’s backyard is oceans considered too deep or hostile for anything ever to be found, and his detector is a torpedo-like device dragged five miles behind his ship that bathes the seafloor in sonar waves.

It was by this method that, last year, his company solved one of Britain’s greatest maritime mysteries. In April 2008, Stemm was drinking breakfast tea at his home in Tampa, Florida, when he took a call from the Odyssey Explorer in the Channel informing him of the discovery of “a very interesting shipwreck”. He was soon out on the ocean himself, alongside the marine archaeologist Dr Sean Kingsley, peering at footage from a Range Rover-sized remote operating vehicle (ROV) called Zeus as it pored over a sandbank 330 feet beneath the Explorer.

“The water was like soup,” Kingsley recalls, but after waiting for five hours, they could make out cannons strewn on the seabed. It was the largest intact collection of bronze Royal Navy guns ever found (41 of them, each worth £35,000). Zeus’s cameras picked out the royal crests of George 1 and George 11 on the 42-pounders. According to Kingsley, the weapons could have belonged only to one “first-rate” warship: HMS Victory.

The predecessor to Nelson’s flagship, the world’s biggest battleship was presumed lost during a violent storm off the coast of Alderney and Guernsey in 1744, while returning home from frightening and fleecing the French fleet. Although the Royal Navy’s prized flagship was a footnote of history, swept under the Admiralty carpet amid suggestions of faulty seamanship and a top-heavy design, it had long been a target for Stemm. The 1,910-tonne vessel, manned by 1,100 men and armed with 110 bronze cannon, is believed to have been carrying four tons of Portuguese gold and silver bullion and coin on board. Referred to as “specie”, it could be worth £700 million. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was a little excited about it!” Stemm grinned at his crew from under his baseball cap. “She’s a big banger.”

The Odyssey Explorer did not dwell over the location, 60 miles to the south of the islands in the Western Channel. To do so could arouse the suspicions of those who regularly track the ship’s movements. “It’s a major problem,” Kingsley says. “All the shallow-water wrecks off Italy have been looted, allegedly at the command of the Mafia.”

Once back in port, Stemm sped to London to see the Second Sea Lord, hoping to broker a deal with English Heritage, the Ministry of Defence, and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. To provide physical proof that Victory had been found, OME was permitted to lift two of the bronze cannon from the site last October. They are now under lock and key in Portsmouth dockyard.

The maritime archaeology community did not greet Stemm’s announcement in February that he had found the wreck with unreserved enthusiasm. Even though he has scientists, archaeologists and historians on board his ships, the more traditional confines of archaeology regard him as an opportunistic arriviste. “There are some horrendous examples of commercial archaeological salvage companies destroying valuable finds because they are driven by commercial imperative,” says Mike Williams, secretary of the Nautical Archaeological Society and an expert on maritime law at the University of Wolverhampton.

“I agree 100 per cent,” Stemm says, “but Odyssey Marine isn’t one of them.” To underline its credentials, yesterday the company published details of 267 wrecks it has found in the Channel during a 4,700 square-mile mapping exercise that was conducted over four years, the first deep-sea survey of anywhere in Europe. These findings, Stemm claims, reveal the “incredible damage that is being done to these wrecks by trawlers and dredgers”.

“The English Channel is like a giant industrial wasteland. The devastation we have found flies in the face of government policy, which is to preserve wrecks in situ. We are saying that this cannot be done and that the most important artefacts must be raised.”

“From a mid-17th century merchant vessel with a cargo of elephant tusks to German U-Boats, the Channel is the history of Britain, our moat,” says Kingsley. “We are allowing our heritage to be literally sliced through.”

But cultural salvage doesn’t come cheap. “When we are in excavation mode it costs us close to $1 million a month,” Stemm reveals. ROVs cost $50,000 for the smallest, the size of a refrigerator, up to $500,000 for a Zeus, which weighs in at eight tonnes on dry land but pirouettes over the seabed like a ballerina. Stemm was the first to adapt robots used for laying undersea pipes and cables and oilrig work to archaeology. “We spent close to $22 million on operations last year,” he says, “but the potential returns justify that.”

Stemm is a native Floridian, fishing and boats are in his blood; he can remember fishing with his grandfathers. “I was always happiest offshore,” he says. “I really wanted to study marine archaeology but they didn’t have any programmes so I did marine biology instead.”

He dropped out of college at the age of 20, and “took care of a sailboat for a gentleman in the entertainment business”. This was how he ended up working with Bob Hope, for whom he worked as a personal assistant-cum-location scout. “He was a bright guy and very kind to me. That’s what sidetracked me into advertising and marketing.”

By the mid-Eighties Stemm was still in advertising when, with a group of likeminded businessmen — including the Apple founder Steve Jobs and Michael Dell of Dell Computers — he set up the Young Entrepreneurs Organization, a network for fledgeling tycoons. Today YEO has 6,000 members in 70 countries. Stemm, though, still felt the call of the sea and when, in 1986, he met a shipbroker in a bar in Grand Cayman, an opportunity arose that seemed too good to miss.

A month later, he was the owner of an 85-ft research vessel with a double-lot decompression chamber. He and his business partner, John C. Morris, originally intended to use their purchase as a dive charter boat, but then they saw a demonstration of ROVs by the US Navy and were hooked. They bought one for $50,000.

“We soon had insurance companies and government agencies asking us to look for sunken boats and other stuff, but what really set me thinking was attending an archaeology conference. I suddenly saw that the world was polarised between archaeologists, who didn’t have any money for excavation, and treasure hunters.”

In 1994 Stemm and Morris, since retired, founded Odyssey Marine Exploration. From Phoenician trading ships to men of war, Stemm built up a database of 3,000 shipwrecks around the world and divided them into those that were worth exploring financially and those that were not. Then he went hunting for the big ones.

Not every government gets along with Stemm. In July 2007, the Spanish Civil Guard intercepted his one of his other ships, Ocean Alert, just after she left Gibraltar and escorted her into Algeciras, where she and her crew were searched and computer hard drives confiscated.

The Spanish believed that the 17-tonne, £253 million haul of coins, gold ornaments and tableware that OME had found on a colonial-era shipwreck it codenamed “Black Swan” located “somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean” was either a Spanish warship, Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, or another vessel that had gone down in Spanish waters. But the coins had flown, literally — loaded into white plastic buckets, transferred to a jet at Gibraltar and then on to the US, where a leading expert in antique coinage, Nick Bruyer, pronounced the find: “unprecedented. I don’t know of anything equal or comparable to it.” Three months later, Odyssey Explorer was seized off the coast of Gibraltar, at which point the Spanish Culture Minister uttered his pointed remarks about piracy.

Spain has since filed a claim for ownership of the treasure ship in the US federal court, where Stemm is applying for a salvage award. US courts have a jurisdiction over who has rights to wrecks found in international waters.

So why did he move the treasure so fast? “It’s complicated, legally,” Stemm says. “Evidence suggests that she probably is the Mercedes,” he admits, “but we did not know to whom the coins belonged at the time. She could also be lying in Portuguese waters so they could have a claim as well. Her legal fate is now in the hands of a judge; it’s the only way to safeguard the integrity of the site.”

And the coins? “They are in a secret conservation lab in Florida,” he says “where they are being slowly and meticulously conserved.” None of them can appear for sale on his online Shipwreck Store until the lawyers have finished haggling, but, not missing a trick, he is marketing “authentic replica” Black Swan coins, “cast from the original coins”.

“I have to hire a lot of lawyers,” Stemm shrugs. “Marine archaeology is a legally untested area.” Work on HMS Sussex has also been postponed to allow Gibraltar-related diplomatic issues to be resolved between Spain and the UK. From Victory, also found in international waters, Stemm has lodged a fire-brick from the ship’s kitchen in the US court “symbolising that the judge has control of the entire site.” He will decide who can claim salvage to her spoils, once the British Government has decided how much of the site it wants Stemm to excavate (the fabric of the ship is too damaged to bring to the surface).

More than once OME has been accused of being stealthy and secretive. “We do not disclose information about specific shipwrecks during the search process,” Stemm says, “but we share our discoveries with the world.”

The artefacts and treasure, photos, video, and archaeological information are made accessible to the public through Odyssey’s website. There have been numerous TV programmes, presentations, academic papers and travelling exhibitions in the United States.

“One of the great disservices our critics have done to us is to say that this is all about the money,” says Stemm, who was part of the UNESCO experts’ meeting that negotiated the Draft Convention for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. “We love the artefacts,” he says, “we love the history. Wrecks are time capsules and we can do what governments and museums cannot afford to do alone. We also have to earn a living at it.”

www.timesonline.co.uk

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