Claimants and skeptics emerge in the case of $3 billion undersea bounty

After the news broke about Sub Sea Research LLC’s discovery of the sunken British freighter Port Nicholson — believed to be secretly carrying 71 tons of platinum now worth nearly $3 billion when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1942 — there naturally emerged an international dialogue about the bounty.

Greg Brooks, co-manager of Sub Sea Research, poses alongside the salvage ship Sea Hunter in Boston Harbor Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012. Brooks will use the Sea Hunter to salvage the cargo of 71 tons of platinum now worth about $3 billion from the British merchant ship Port Nicholson which was sunk by a German U-boat in 1942. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Greg Brooks of Gorham, co-founder of Sub Sea Research, told me this week he’s already been granted custodianship of the shipwreck by the U.S. Marshal Service and fulfilled his legal duty in opening the case up for outside claims on the loot.

I’m no attorney, but Timothy Shusta is, and he told the Associated Press his client — the British government — may still attempt to argue for custody of the ship’s potentially precious cargo. The Florida lawyer suggested United Kingdom officials are skeptical there was ever any platinum on the freighter to begin with, despite the otherwise convincing evidence outlined by Brooks and his team.

The AP also heard from Florida-based underwater archaeologist Robert Marx, who said that other treasure hunter teams have gone after the Port Nicholson in the past, and seemed certain if there indeed was platinum to be found near the wreck, those groups would have come away with some of it. Marx pondered how much of the treasure is left, indicating at first glance that he agrees there was treasure there to begin with.

A really rough scan of Internet sites and stories doesn’t turn up any other undersea research teams announcing the recovery of hundreds of thousands in platinum bars from off the coast of Cape Cod, but if somebody has even quietly picked off half of the bounty suspected at the site, that would still leave almost $1.5 billion worth for Sub Sea Research.

Probably still worth the effort.

The state-run Russian International News Agency reported that the Institute of Russian History, based at the Russian Academy of Sciences, claimed no awareness of the cargo specifically, but acknowledged that the Soviets did make wartime payments to the United States for supplies using precious metals.

Brooks and his researchers believe the platinum was en route to the U.S. Treasury from the U.S.S.R. for such a payment, and that the debt obligation has since been fulfilled, leaving both the now-defunct Soviet government and fully satiated U.S. government out of the running to claim the ingots.

That said, the HMS Edinburgh was similarly carrying Soviet metals (gold, in that case) when it was sunk in 1942 in the waters off North Russia, and the salvage group was reportedly awarded only 10 percent of the haul when the work was done in the early 1980s. Of course, at the time the U.S.S.R. was still a going concern, and the Soviet government claimed two-thirds of the treasure as rightfully its property, and the British had skin in the game because it was their cruiser carrying the stuff.

In another case that appears on its face to be dissimilar to that of the Port Nicholson, Odyssey Marine Exploration out of Tampa was recently ordered by an American circuit court to return $500 million in gold and silver coins to the Spanish government. The treasure in that situation came from the shipwreck of a Spanish frigate sunk by the British off the coast of Portugal in 1804.

The court determined in that tense and highly publicized case that the coins were very clearly Spanish property when they went underwater, and 200 years lying around on the seabed didn’t change that.

Ownership of the Port Nicholson’s cargo seems to be much murkier. The international legal system evolved between 1804 and 1942, doing what legal systems do best, which is make things intensely complicated.

Is the Port Nicholson’s platinum property of the U.S. Treasury, because it was on the way there when it sank? Brooks says it isn’t, because the Treasury later got its payment from the Soviets.

Does the platinum belong to the Soviet government? Well, as Brooks has pointed out, there is no Soviet government these days.

How about the British government? According to the most widely disseminated story of the Port Nicholson, if it was transporting platinum, it was only doing so to transfer the payment from one ally to another. The ship itself may very well be British property, but did the United Kingdom ever have legal ownership over the cargo?

And how about Sub Sea Research? This much seems certain. If not for Greg Brooks and his team, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Brooks said Sub Sea Research has spent as much as $6 million on this project, and the crew’s work will be the only reason this treasure becomes available to fight over.

Platinum sitting under 700 feet of ocean water isn’t worth anything to anybody. Assuming, of course, that it’s there.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.