Private high-tech raids on shipwrecks abound with the watery provenance providing strong sales at auction

National Maritime Museum laments “smash and grab” approach of private salvage operations but who else has the funds?


Significant technological advances in underwater excavation and recovery are proving a mixed blessing in the field of marine archaeology. In America satellite technology, video monitors and digital data links relay sound and images from the sea-bed to museum visitors thousands of miles away and Britain may soon benefit from this new type of underwater museum. However, the unsupervised exploration of sunken treasure ships (yielding rich pickings for anyone able to fund the high costs of such expeditions) is widely condemned by marine achaeologists.

Shipwreck treasure (in particular porcelain) has proved a strong seller at auction over the past few years, witness the Nanking cargo of 150,000 pieces sold in 1986 for £10.1 million. On 7 and 8 April this year Christie’s Amsterdam realised over £ 4 million for 28,000 pieces of Chinese export porcelain salvaged from a trading junk sunk off the coast of Vietnam in 1690. Buyers are attracted to the glamorous provenance of works recovered from the sea bed and prices are generally higher than for similar objects without such watery origins.

On 28 May as part of their Spanish sale (see p. 17) Christie’s will be offering further pieces from the Maravillas Treasure (some of which was sold in 1990) comprising some outstanding items of Spanish jewellery together with gold coins and bars recovered from the wreck of the seventeenth-century Spanish galleon the “Nuestra Señora de las Maravillas”, wrecked off the Bahamas in 1656. The ship was laden with gold, silver and emeralds from Colombia and unsuccessful attempts were made by the Spanish government to salvage the ship immediately after it sank. In 1972 the diver Robert Marx, who has specialised in the salvaging of treasure from wrecks around the world, located the “Maravillas” from nautical charts discovered in Seville together with a copy of the ship’s cargo manifest. Marx’s attempts to explore the wreck were unsuccessful; fourteen years later Captain Herbert Humphreys Jr negotiated a deal with the Bahamian government which gave him three-quarters of the profits of all items found. Captain Humphreys’ company Marine Archeological Recovery Ltd has retrieved items from June 1988 onwards and has been consigning items for sale at auction since that date.

Of the pieces on offer at Christie’s the most important is a gold and Columbian emerald cross set with sixty-six stones with a highly distinctive engraved reverse which would once have been enamelled or possibly filled in with niello (est. £150-200,000). No other cross of such design is known, according to Mary Fielden of Christie’s Jewellery Department. Also in the sale is a circular gold and emerald brooch with an open-work pattern of eighty-one Columbian stones. The fact that the pieces have lain for 300 years under the sea bed means that they are remarkably fresh while the tight settings have ensured that the inlaid stones are still in place.

Sarah Draper, Assistant Curator of Archaeology at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, expresses the strongest disapproval of private wreck salvage operations and “treasure hunters” who make large sums of money from salvage operations. In general the practice of searching wrecks for treasure is deplored by the Museum: in most cases no provision is made for properly recording where items were located; only items of commercial value are salvaged and there is no interest in the wreck as an entity or the long-term conservation issues involved in raising perishable items such as iron and wood from the sea bed. Ms Draper describes the operation to recover the Nanking treasure as a “smash and grab” raid. The Museum’s policy is that it is far better to leave such time-capsules undisturbed. Furthermore it would never purchase items brought up in such a way, as this would give support to these operations.

But the National Maritime Museum’s Archaeology department has been cut from twelve to two people (one part-time) since 1986 as the Museum has shifted its emphasis away from research towards exhibitions and leisure activities. Ms Draper is funded by the Museum to undertake one month’s underwater excavation per year, but only off the coast of the British Isles. She has devoted her time to the survey of the wreck of an East Indiaman lying off Weymouth; once captained by William Wordsworth’s brother, the ship went down in 1805. The painstaking work on the wreck undertaken by the amateur Chelmsford Sub-Acqua Club over the last twelve years will be the subject of an exhibition at the Maritime Museum this year.

Elsewhere in Britain a new type of museum developed in America to view the wrecks of sunken ships in situ may be used for the 30,000 ton “Lusitania” torpedoed off the Irish coast by a German U-boat in 1915 with the loss of 1,198 lives. The project is the idea of the American oceanographer Dr Robert Ballard who found the wrecks of the Bismark and the Titanic. If given the go-ahead, pictures from the wreck will be sent ashore by fibre optic cable to Liverpool by satellite. Visitors to the Merseyside Maritime Museum, who are promoting the project with Dr Ballard, will be able to view the wreck and explore its interior with robot cameras remotely controlled from a viewing room in the museum. Dr Ballard has already beamed live pictures from the wrecks of a Roman galley in the Mediterranean and two American warships sunk in 1812.

The project is still in its early stages but a spokesman for the Merseyside Museum noted that they are already using Dr Ballard’s technology for the Jason Project IV which will take place in February next year in the Sea of Cortez off the Mexican Coast. Underwater cameras will survey the wildlife and underwater features of the sea bed with particular reference to the species of Alaskan Gray Whale found in those waters.

Using Dr Ballard’s technology, a child sitting in the Liverpool museum could drive a robot investigating underwater volcanoes 5,000 miles away. A spokesman for the Merseyside Museum felt that both this project and the possible Lusitania scheme were a way of making information accessible. In Greenwich Dr Ballard’s work was described as serious, exciting and educational.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'High-tech raids Davy Jones’s locker and sells at auction'