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The latest Parliamentary written answer regarding HMS Victory 1744 from Heritage Minister Lord Astor doesn’t offer much comfort to the long suffering shareholders of Odyssey Marine Exploration [OMEX] who have been hoping the Tampa based treasure hunting company will be allowed to recover the cannon and other material from the wreck of the lost Royal Navy Flagship since January 2012.  Odyssey, is the contracted service provider to the the owner of the wreck, the Maritime Heritage Foundation.  A charity established to curate the wreck in October 2010 and chaired by associate of David Cameron, Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt, the Conservative Peer and former senior Conservative Party official Sir Rober Balchin, Lord Lingfield.  The Heritage Minister reported that no announcement regarding permission to begin work on the HMS Victory wreck site is planned.  In a further blow to the hopes of OMEX’s shareholders, the Minister directed interested parties to the recently published Government guidelines and key management principles for historic military wrecks.  The guidelines, published jointly by the Department for Culture Media and Sport and the Ministry of Defence in April, seemingly enshrine the terms of the Annex to the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage and the Museums Association code of Ethics as UK Government Policy in this area.   This position almost certainly means that Odyssey’s commercial business model cannot be applied to the HMS Victory wreck site, nor to any other historic Military wrecks under UK jurisdiction.

Leading archaeologist and Conservative Peer, Lord Renfrew, the former Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge University, had  asked the Ministry of Defence when they “expect to announce a decision on the future of HMS Victory (1744); and when they expect to publish the key management principles formulated by the Advisory Group for HMS Victory?[HL1415]”

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In reply Lord Astor stated

“Ministers and Officials from the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), drawing on advice from the independent Advisory Group, continue to engage with the Maritime Heritage Foundation over the future management of the wreck site of HMS VICTORY (1744). The Project Plan must be consistent with the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage and its associated Annex.

Considerable progress has been made over the last two years but no date has been set for an announcement.”

Observers of Government policy regarding the contentious HMS Victory project translate this announcement as “Don’t hold your breath in expectation of the Tampa Treasure Hunters uncovering the Amsterdamsche Courant’s reported gold shipment anytime soon.”

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Lord Astor added

“The DCMS and the MOD have published guidance, including Key Management Principles, on the Protection and Management of Historic Military Wrecks outside UK Territorial Waters, this can be found at the following link:

More information specific to HMS VICTORY (1744) will be published once the way ahead is determined.”

Any OMEX stock holder who follows the link to the DCMS/MoD Guidelines published in April 2014 will find this paragraph in the section on Key Management Principles.

“The commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage for trade or speculation or its irretrievable dispersal is fundamentally incompatible with the protection and proper management of underwater cultural heritage. Underwater cultural heritage shall not be traded, sold, bought or bartered as commercial goods”
(Rule 2 of the Annex to the UNESCO Convention).

The document also cites the sections of the Museums Association Code of Ethics which relate to the disposal of museum collections and in particular the very strict rules relating to commercial disposal.

It is known that the archaeological consultant to both OMEX and the Maritime Heritage Foundation, Dr Sean Kingsley of Wreck Watch International, has submitted at least two draft project designs to the Ministry of Defence and its HMS Victory Advisory Group, all so far rejected by Ministers.  ThePipeline also understands that one of the grounds for the rejection is the failure of the project designs to comply explicitly with the UNESCO Convention Annex and other aspects of UK heritage policy relating to historic shipwrecks and the curation and above all the disposal, of archaeological collections.   By citing this chapter and verse from the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage alongside the Museum Association Code of Ethics i the new guidelines it looks very much as if the UK Government is taking the discussion which has until now been largely undertaken behind closed doors, into the public arena.  In doing so Ministers are apparently shutting the door on OMEX’s business model for “commercial maritime archaeology” funded by the sale of artifacts.  Albeit the door is being shut indirectly, in a way which requires Odyssey’s directors, the Maritime Heritage Foundation and their consultants to actually read, understand and reflect the requirements of the new guidelines.

It remains to be seen whether the company will persevere with the HMS Victory  project or whether, like Odyssey’s MoD contracted salvage of the alleged wreck of HMS Sussex, another lost Royal Navy warship which allegedly carried a cargo of bullion, the HMS Victory project will take on a paper existence, surfacing only in Odyssey’s quarterly filings to the US Securities and Exchange Commission.  At the very least the revelation that no Government announcement is planned, coupled with the fact that Odyssey’s principle salvage vessel the Odyssey Explorer is currently working off the US coast on the project to salvage material left behind by a previous expedition to the Paddle Steamer Central America, and the that the widely reported Marine Management Organisation investigation into alleged unlicensed work on the site in the Summer of 2012 still has not announced its findings, suggests that there is now very little chance of any work on the HMS Victory wreck site during 2014.

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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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