Real Troves of Treasure Lost at Sea
So, ye be lookin’ to comb the seven seas in search o’ treasure, be ye? Some say this be a fool’s errand, that there sunken ‘ordes o’ booty be just a myth. But take ‘eart. Ships laden with gold really ‘ave fallen to the bottom o’ the sea. Many ships, actually. Some sit down there still, waitin’ fer ye to come claim them. We be talking about such vessels as...
The Secret Japanese Sub Shipping Drugs and Gold to the Nazis
In 1944, Japan wanted technology, and Germany wanted raw materials. Japan decided to make the trade via submarine. Normally, that would be a crazy idea, because subs aren’t known for having enough space to comfortably walk through, let alone enough space for loads of cargo. But the Allies had enough control over the seas that any vessel that traveled above the surface seemed all but doomed.
The submarine I-52 carried two tons of opium and two tons of gold. It aimed to exchange that stuff for a load of uranium from Germany — not enough to make a nuclear bomb, but enough to make a non-nuclear bomb that still spewed a bunch of radiation. Then, on June 3rd, American forces figured out where the sub was and sank it. Down went the 100 people aboard, and down went all that cargo.
For years, the exact location where I-52 landed was lost. Then in 1995, following a race against a British team, a group of Americans found it. They announced plans to loot the wreckage... and didn’t follow through on them. Ten years later, that same salvage group announced they were going at it again, with plans to raise the sub, but again, they didn’t do it. Those 146 gold bars are still there, 1,200 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands. Go and grab them today, before that team announces this decade’s attempt to beat you to it.
Florida Divers Found $500 Million in Coins in a Sunken Spanish Frigate
More treasure than the I-52’s popped up in a ship that a Florida diving group discovered in 2007. The ship was the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a Spanish frigate that Britain sank off the coast of Portugal. There was no war going on at the time of the sinking (October 1804), but Britain thought it was smart to act because they strongly suspected Spain was going to declare war, thanks to some shenanigans with the French.
The diving group, called Odyssey Marine Exploration, found 600 barrels of coins in the Mercedes wreck, and the hundreds of thousand of coins were worth $500 million. They raised the haul up and brought it ashore, to Gibraltar in Spain, then flew the stuff to Florida. The salvage boat remained off the coast of Spain, and here’s when a Spanish warship forced it into a port. Spanish forces searched the vessel and arrested the captain, Sterling Vorus.
That gold and silver belonged to Spain, said Spain. True, Spain hadn’t bothered recovering it over the course of the past two centuries, but that didn’t mean anyone else could roll in and call dibs. On the other hand, Vorus had a claim over the treasure, as 1) he had salvaged it; and 2) his name was Sterling Vorus.
After Spain released him, Vorus pursued every legal avenue he could, even suing all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It was no use. Spain got the treasure in the end and now displays it in a museum.
A One-Eyed Killer Found the ‘Millionaire’s Ship’
When you play with anything more dangerous than foam rubber as a child, your mother warns you that you’re going to poke your eye out. When he was 11, Martin Bayerle was playing with some firecrackers, and when they exploded, he really did lose his left eye. He wore an eyepatch the rest of his life, sealing his fate as a treasure hunter.
Bayerle’s big discovery came in 1981, when he uncovered the wreck of the RMS Republic. This was a ship owned by the White Star Line, the same company behind the Titanic. When the Republic sank in 1909, after smashing into an Italian ship thanks to fog, only six people died. The remainder managed to board rescue vessels (chiefly the Italian one the Republic had rammed into).
Lost, however, were all the belongings of the ships’ wealthy passengers. These included gold coins that were worth millions even in 1909. Bayerle did not find this gold when he spotted the site of the wreck. It still has to be down there somewhere. He did, however, manage to salvage hundreds of bottles of wine, a worthy haul for any buccaneer.
That would be the end of the story of Martin Bayerle, except for the small fact that he later went to prison for killing his wife’s lover. He invited the man to dinner (they drank wine), and issued him a subpoena to testify in the Bayerles’ divorce case. The next day, without waiting for such testimony, he shot the man six times. He’d killed the man to protect his wife, insisted Bayerle later, and to protect his family.
The jury bought this enough to acquit him of the first-degree murder charge, but they put him behind bars for manslaughter. Bayerle emerged a couple years later, now with an official legal claim over the contents of the Republic, so this is one ship that's fiercely guarded from pirates of all kinds.
The Billion-Dollar Cache
Remember the Mercedes, the ship that the Florida divers found? When news first broke that they’d found treasure, no one was sure just which wreck these adventurers had located. Rumors said maybe it was the Merchant Royal, a British ship that sank in 1641. The Merchant Royal carried 50 tons of gold. That trove today would be worth more than $1.5 billion.
This was not British gold. It was Spanish gold, a massive horde that was being sent to the Dutch to pay for military expenses. The Merchant Royal was in port in Cadiz when it learned of a Spanish ship that was overburdened with this treasure. We’re not being facetious here — the Spanish ship really held more treasure than it could safely carry, and it wanted help transporting it. The Merchant Royal offered to carry the gold to Belgium (surely in exchange for some agreed-upon fee).
You’re free to speculate about whether the ship really planned to deliver the gold or whether they were going to hightail it back to England to live as kings. Either way, taking on the gold had been a terrible idea. The Merchant Royal had been leaking, even before the new heavy baggage came aboard. With those extra tons of precious cargo, the ship didn’t stand a chance. It sank off the coast of England, killing 18 aboard. Even all these centuries later, no one has found the ship, or the skeletons who 100-percent haunt the wreck.
The Big Kahuna
The San José was one more Spanish galleon, part of the treasure fleet bringing booty back from all over the Empire. When it sank in 1708, it carried 200 tons of gold, silver and emeralds. The treasure had been Peru’s before, but now it was Spain’s, and today, that stuff would be worth $17 billion.
This was one of those years when Britain and Spain weren’t getting along, so it was only a matter of time till an English squadron showed up and fired on them. The plan, as far as anyone could tell, was to board the San José and loot it. That didn’t happen. Instead, it seems the British accidentally targeted the room that held all the explosives because the ship suddenly exploded and sank, killing all but 11 of the 600 aboard.
The world knows exactly where the ship is. A team found it in November 2015. But nearly a decade later, it remains unlooted, because no one can agree on who has the right to do the looting.
The ship sank off the coast of Colombia, so Colombia says it owns it, under the Submerged Cultural Heritage Law. Spain says that it owns the Spanish ship’s contents, thanks to the U.N.’s convention on underwater cultural heritage. Meanwhile, an American company claims to have been the one to determine the ship’s coordinates back in 1981, which means that it’s entitled to at least half of the haul.
We think you know who we say has the right to loot the ship: You do. Mount an expedition, and grab that treasure today. The salvage project might cost $60 million, but that’s nothing compared with how much you’ll get when you plop the haul on the counter of the nearest CASH-4-GOLD store.