IT’S OMEX MONTH IN thePipeLine
As the archaeological world awaits the decision of the Marine Management Organisation regarding the Maritime Heritage Foundation’s application for a licence to work on HMS Victory 1744, and second quarter results due, thePipeLine presents the first in a short series about our favorite group of trans Atlantic treasure hunters and their adventures on the sometimes choppy waters of public relations.
The loss of the 100 gun, First Rate warship HMS Victory on the night of 3/4 October 1744 was a maritime mystery until Florida based treasure hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration located the wreck in 2008. However, the announcement of the discovery at a high profile press conference at Canary Wharf in February 2009 brought with it a fresh mystery. Why did Odyssey insist on spelling the name of Sir John Balchen, Admiral of the White who was lost with the ship, BALCHIN? After all, the Admiral’s own memorial in Westminster Abbey, put up by his daughter, who ought to have known how to spell the family name, gives the spelling as BALCHEN, as does a biography published in 1787. However, observers of all things Odyssey quickly pointed out that, when it comes to the use of evidence, Odyssey is in a class of its own. A fact confirmed by US Judge Steven R Merryday in his judgement awarding the Spanish Government $1.1 million in costs, including a $152k fine of Odyssey for contempt, over Odyssey’s salvage of 17.5 tons of silver taken from the Spanish Frigate Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, “contrary to law” and its conduct of the subsequent court case. Thus it was no surprise when it was also pointed out that the BALCHIN spelling just happened to be shared by Sir Robert Balchin, Lord Lingfield, the chair of the Maritime Heritage Foundation [MHF], the charity specifically set up to manage the wreck and thanks to his links at the highest levels of the Conservative Party, to become Odyssey’s conduit to the heart of the UK Government’s decision making process for historic wrecks. When Lord Lingfield was also described, quite erroneously in the 2009 press release announcing the find, as a “descendant” of Admiral Balchen at around the same time as the spelling on the Balchin family website was also changed, it looked very much as if the late Admiral was being re-branded. Now, in a quiet surrender to the overwhelming primary historical evidence, an article in Current Archaeology [Issue 305 August 2015] by Dr Sean Kingsley, the archaeological consultant who, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey confirmed to Parliament, represents both Odyssey and the Maritime Heritage Foundation on the Victory Project, has reverted to using the correct historical spelling of Admiral Balchen’s name.
Dr Kingsley’s restoration of the correct spelling of Admiral Balchen’s name in the article, a correction which is repeated in the latest series of Odyssey’s papers about the Victory, will be seen as a vindication by Admiral Balchen’s genuine direct descendants, the Temple West family, who were furious at what they saw as an attempt by Odyssey to appropriate the lost Admiral’s name for commercial purposes. In January 2012 Odyssey announced it had agreed a commercial salvage contract with Lord Lingfield’s charity and that the company would be paid costs, plus commercial rates of commission, of between 50% and 80% of the auction value, on all recovered artifacts. The company also repeatedly told shareholders and investment conferences that a cargo of bullion, which Odyssey claimed was aboard the wreck when she was lost, would be “monetized” through the sale of coins and artifacts. Media speculation, never denied by Odyssey, suggested the bullion might be worth as much as $500 million at current prices. As a result the head of the family, retired TV director Richard Temple West, who is descended directly from Admiral Balchen’s only child to have children, his daughter Frances who set up the Westminster Abbey monument, wrote a stinging letter to the Times newspaper attacking what Mr Temple West claimed was the commercial exploitation of the maritime war grave of eleven hundred Royal Navy sailors. The letter concluded
“Most important of all to us, our ancestors name must not be used by advertising men to pretend the profit seeking activities of an American treasure hunting company are archaeology done in the public interest.”
The Times, 23 June 2012
“The company also has a habit of telling different audiences what it thinks they want to hear.”
Just why Dr Kingsley has chosen this moment to publicly revert to the historically correct spelling of Admiral Balchen’s name is a matter for speculation, particularly when, at the time of writing, the project web site http://www.victory1744.org/ still uses the Balchin spelling throughout, except for one, somewhat grudging, bracketed reference that the Admirals name is “(also spelled Balchen)”. Dr Kingsley’s consultancy Wreck Watch International is listed as a sponsor on the project “About This Site” page [ http://www.victory1744.org/aboutus.html ]. However, Odyssey never releases information about any of its projects unless it is either forced to by the authorities, or it thinks there will be an advantage in the release, usually a financial advantage to be reflected in the company share price on the NASDAQ. The company also has a habit of telling different audiences what it thinks they want to hear. Potential investors want to hear about treasure, however secret or elusive, while the mainstream archaeological community wants evidence of a comprehensive project design which complies with Government policy and international conventions, backed up by the technical and financial resources to carry the project through to completion.
True to form Odyssey’s habitual linguistic smoke and mirrors is still to be seen in play in a box out at the conclusion of the Current Archaeology article where Odyssey are described soberly as
“…a deep ocean exploration company based in Tampa, Florida, specialising in three areas of marine science:…”
In January 2009, shortly before the discovery of HMS Victory was announced, the company described itself on its own website in a somewhat more exuberant tone as
“… the world leader in deep-ocean shipwreck exploration, searching the globe’s vast oceans for sunken ships with intriguing stories, extraordinary treasure and precious artifacts spanning centuries of maritime travel.”
Adding that, among the ways you could share in the excitement of deep ocean exploration was through the company
“…making shipwreck treasures, artifacts and information available to collectors, the general public and students through our webstore…”
Although Admiral Balchen appears to have had his true name restored to him by Odyssey and the Maritime Heritage Foundation, the West family, and many in the maritime archaeology community, will be wondering if that generosity on the part of Odyssey, the Maritime Heritage Foundation and their job share consultant, will extend to the small change from the Admiral’s pockets, or the plate from his table if it is found in any future salvage work by Odyssey. True, as Dr Kingsley’s article somewhat disingenuously reminds us, unlike most previous Odyssey projects “no artifacts were sold from the 270 wrecks found during the English Channel surveys.” However, this fact might have less to do with a desire to observe archaeological ethics and conventions and more to do with the fact that none of the sites in question were in fact excavated. This lack of excavation was almost certainly nothing to do with a lack of archaeology. On 270 wreck sites there would be plenty, much of it important and little previously studied. It is just that Odyssey has very specific criteria for the wrecks it invests its resources in excavating.
According to Odyssey CEO Mark Gordon speaking at the Noble Investors Conference in January 2013, the most important archaeological criteria for an Odyssey excavation project is that the target wreck site has no Sovereign legal complications and is potentially worth in excess of $50 million. Dr Kingsley’s Current Archaeology article also fails to mention that the terms of the salvage contract between Odyssey and the Maritime Heritage Foundation, published by Odyssey in 2012 and never repudiated by either party, also allows for the Maritime Heritage Foundation to pay Odyssey with artifacts in lieu of cash. Presumably artifacts which might end up in that Webstore.
…any attempt to employ such a tactic would almost certainly be a short cut to an injunction or another judicial review…
Neither does Dr Kingsley mention that, as we have reported previously in thePipeLine [ crystal-balls-and-the-two-faces-of-omex ], financial analysts who are believed to be close to Odyssey management, have signaled that Odyssey has gamed a legally questionable work around of the UK regulatory system to try to reassure investors that artifacts from the Victory can still be sold. Of course any attempt to employ such a tactic would almost certainly be a short cut to an injunction or another judicial review, the mere threat of which has already caused the Ministry of Defence to halt the Victory Project in its tracks once. That said, even the hint of a treasure recovery might be enough to “pop” the volatile company stock by enough to enable casino investors to make a few Bucks and some analysts allege that is what this whole exercise is about in the first place.
In this context the re-re-branding of Admiral Balchen is part of an attempt to cut away the dead wood of over claiming, advertising hype and misinformation surrounding the project, such as the suggestion, leaked to the Sunday Times in 2012, that English Heritage was in some way responsible for the theft of cannon from the HMS Victory wreck site [ Heritage Daily 9 June 2012 ] and instead to re-position Odyssey, the Maritime Heritage Foundation and the HMS Victory 1744 project as sober, research driven, archaeology. Of course, if you want to win friends and influence people it helps if you don’t first appear to treat historical evidence as a malleable advertising tool and falsely accuse your new prospective BFF of incompetently putting your most important site at risk.
That said, this may all be cock up rather than conspiracy and any misunderstanding of the precise spellings and meanings of the names and language involved here might genuinely be down to conflicting sources from a period when spellings were not standardised and problems reading the Admirals handwriting. At least, that last one was the explanation Odyssey offered the US Securities and Exchange Commission [SEC] for the misspelling in the first place, when they stated in February 2009
(Note: Sir John Balchin’s name is frequently misspelled as “Balchen.” Reportedly, his lavish, swirling handwriting made the ‘i’’ resemble an ‘e’, which is why the mistake entered the historical record.)
But as we have seen from Dr Kingsley’s change of heart [and spelling], it now looks very much as if Odyssey are admitting defeat over the attempted re-branding of Admiral Balchen and are reverting to the spelling from the closest primary sources, Admiral Balchen’s monument, his biography and the ship’s Muster Roll listing the crew, all of which were of course freely available in February 2009.
All in all, while this surrender to overwhelming historical evidence is welcome, less welcome is the increasing evidence that this move is part of a coordinated charm offensive, designed to lobby the Ministry of Defence and somehow legitimise the commercial salvage of HMS Victory by Odyssey on the principle that if you describe a treasure hunt as legitimate archaeology often enough the description will stick. For many in the mainstream archaeological world, the idea of Odyssey being let loose on the maritime military grave and memorial of eleven hundred Royal Navy personnel, including a genuine war hero Admiral Balchen, remains far from charming. While the perception that the primary motivation of OME’s management has always been to maximise the profits accrued by the sometimes shadowy, unaccountable, short traders and hedge funds who play Odyssey shares like a dollar slot machine in Las Vegas is certainly offensive.
Of course, this may also be a play for a life for the HMS Victory 1744 project post OMEX. While it has demonstrated the staying power of a cockroach in a nuclear winter, the company is currently on the financial equivalent of life support from Mexican owner, MINOSA. This means that the Maritime Heritage Foundation and Wreck Watch would be foolish in the extreme not to have a Plan B up their sleeve in case someone in Florida, or Mexico City, decides to send OMEX in its current form on a one way flight to Dignitas. Someone will end up owning that salvage contract.
Still to come in this series: The OME/MHF Spot the Difference competition and much more.