British Secretary of State for Defence Mr Michael Fallon MP has announced that the NASDAQ quoted Florida based Treasure Hunting Company Odyssey Marine Exploration are to be permitted to recover “at risk” surface objects from the wreck site of the Royal Navy First Rate ship of the line HMS Victory, lost in a storm some fifty miles west of the Channel Island of Alderney in October 1744. Mr Fallon’s statement, which emerged with little fanfare in a statement to Parliament on Friday 24 October, marks the end of a decision making process which has lasted almost the entire length of the current Parliament. Mostly because of the controversial nature of the Maritime Heritage Foundation [MHF] and its chosen contractor. In 2012 Odyssey was found to have acted Contrary to Law and forced to pay $1 million in costs to the Spanish Government when it recovered 17.5 tons of silver bullion from the wreck site of another historic warship, the Spanish Frigate Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, sunk in 1804. Presiding Judge, Steven Merryday observed that Odyssey’s management had acted in “bad faith and for an improper purpose.”
Greeting the HMS Victory announcement in a low key press release Odyssey president and recently appointed CEO Mark Gordon commented, “This is an exemplary project for Odyssey that can demonstrate how cooperation between the public and private sectors can benefit business, the government and the public. We are committed to conducting this archaeological project with the greatest of care and concern as we utilize advanced technology, defining procedures, and experts for recording, documentation, recovery, conservation and publication.”
The Chair of Odyssey’s employer, the Maritime Heritage Foundation, senior Conservative Peer and associate of Chief Whip Michael Gove, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Prime Minister David Cameron, Sir Robert Balchin Lord Lingfield stated in the same Odyssey press release,
“We are looking forward to sharing the progress of this exciting archaeological project and the stories told by the recovered artifacts with the public…HMS Victory is the only wreck of a first-rate English warship discovered underwater anywhere in the world. Odyssey’s archaeological experience with this shipwreck, as well as with many other projects throughout the world, gives us great confidence this important project will be conducted to the highest standards.”
Information about the project, including an outline project design has been published at the web site set up for the HMS Victory Project www.victory1744.org
However, it is Lord Lingfield’s close relationship with senior members of the Cameron Government which has been one of the most controversial factors in the HMS Victory debate. Particularly when the satirical magazine Private Eye revealed that Lord Lingfield and the then Culture Secretary with responsibility for the consultation over the future management of the wreck site, Jeremy Hunt, held an unminuted meeting in the Summer of 2010 when HMS Victory was discussed.
Equally controversial have been uncorroborated claims by Odyssey that that HMS Victory, and the fleet commander Admiral Sir John Balchen who was lost with the ship and his entire crew of 1100, was acting as courier for a consignment of bullion from Dutch merchants in Lisbon. Estimates of the value of the consignment if it exists, reach as high as $815 million. However, sceptics point out that the whole valuation is based on a single entry in a Dutch newspaper, the Amsterdamsche Courant, and that Odyssey has promised secret or uninsured cargoes on almost all its projects, including most recently on the SS Gairsoppa and has yet to find one.
The next stage in the process is for the Maritime Heritage Foundation to submit a Project Design and application for a seabed licence under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. This process takes on average three months and is subject to a mandatory period of public consultation. Meanwhile the archaeological world has a number of questions it wants answered including which museum the material from the site will be deposited with, and whether the Maritime Heritage Foundation has the financial resources to post bond to ensure the project can be completed. Both are requirements of the Annex to the UNESCO convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage which underlies UK Policy for maritime archaeology and the Key Management Principles for Historic Military Wrecks outside of UK waters, published earlier in 2014.
Along with the Museums Association Code of Ethics, these core documents are supposed to underpin the entire HMS Victory agreement which the Maritime Heritage Foundation and Odyssey have both agreed to observe. This apparent compliance is a first for Odyssey which has previously refused to observe the terms of the UNESCO Annex, particularly as regards the clauses preventing the breaking up of a site archive of finds and the stipulation that “… Underwater cultural heritage shall not be traded, sold, bought or bartered as commercial goods.”
Consistent with this position, Mr Fallon’s statement concluded “The government is satisfied that the project will be managed in accordance with best practice and will ensure that important artifacts from this unique part of our maritime history remain together for the future appreciation and education of all.”
However, an article and comments appearing on the US based investors Web Site “Seeking Alpha” [ http://seekingalpha.com/article/2595215-odyssey-marine-victory-and-vindication#comment-42266815 ] suggest that some at least of Odyssey’s investors see a good deal of legal wriggle room in the British Government’s position and the possibility of funding the excavations and a profit to shareholders from the sale of what Odyssey terms “trade goods”, that is coins and mass produced items. The article in Seeking Alpha matches comments regarding the UNESCO Convention and other aspects of the UK’s legal and regulatory system made in the past by Odyssey’s former CEO and current Chairman of the Board, Greg Stemm, giving rise to suggestions that it may have been an exercise in kite flying by Odyssey’s senior management. Such a scenario will cause major anxiety in the mainstream archaeological world which is likely to seek urgent clarifications from the Maritime Heritage Foundation, Odyssey and the British Government some of whose most senior members are so closely linked with the HMS Victory deal.