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[Lead Image:  Courtesy of Astrid Harrison]

As we await the 10Q quarterly financial report and conference call from Odyssey Marine Exploration there is time to recall an old joke which runs “There is plenty of room for new faces in politics including both of Mr X’s.”

So it can be with archaeology.  The announcement on Friday 24 October that the British Government have given the Maritime Heritage Foundation and its contractor, Florida based Treasure Hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration  the go ahead to to recover “at risk” items from the wreck site of HMS Victory 1744 under an approved Project Design, leads the thePipeLine to suggest that the UK Archaeological Sector  is confronting a similar situation.  There may be a new face on the UK Maritime Archaeology scene, Odyssey Marine Exploration. Or is it the same old face, formerly cast into outer darkness over its promotion of the past as something to be “monetised”, but now given Government permission no less to work on one of the most high profile maritime projects in UK waters since the Mary Rose?  High profile, many would argue, mostly on account of Odyssey’s promotion of itself and the $500 million cargo the company alleges was aboard Admiral Sir John Balchen’s flagship when she sank in a storm in October 1744 with the loss of 1100 Royal Navy mariners.

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“Odyssey will find its methods under the kind of scrutiny it has never faced before”

Contrary to comments elsewhere, the announcement from UK Defence Minister Michael Fallon, is not the end to one of the most long drawn out and controversial episodes in UK maritime archaeology. It is in fact the beginning of what will almost certainly be another bitterly contested process.  As part of that process Odyssey will find its methods under the kind of scrutiny it has never faced before, as the company must work with the Maritime Heritage Foundation to submit a detailed project design to the UK Marine Management Organisation [MMO] to prove environmental sustainability. This process is subject to a mandatory 42 day public consultation as well as consultation with key agencies and interested organisations.

Of course, the Marine Management Organisation is very familiar with Odyssey’s work on behalf of the Maritime Heritage Foundation at the HMS Victory 1744 wreck site some fifty miles west of the Channel Island of Alderney.   As has been widely reported in the UK Press, the MMO has been investigating the activities of Odyssey’s research vessel Odyssey Explorer on the HMS Victory site in the Summer of 2012 and whether the vessel was acting with the full authorisation of the Maritime Heritage Foundation.   It is alleged that the company carried out seabed works in breach of two legally binding documents, the Deed of Gift for HMS Victory 1744 which requires the prior approval of all works from the UK Secretary of State for Defence, and most importantly the Marine and Coastal Access Act which requires seabed works to be licensed by the MMO.  Lord Lingfield, Chair of the MHF apparently admitted in an e-mail to the Ministry of Defence that his organisation had authorised Odyssey to prepare cannon for lifting when it is believed that the Secretary of State had not given permission for a recovery, while Odyssey itself has repeatedly published the fact that it placed sacrificial scientific equipment on the seabed when it is alleged it had no licence to do so.  Indeed an e-mail trail released under the Freedom of Information Act shows that in the Autumn of 2012 Odyssey withdrew from negotiations over such a licence citing concerns over commercial confidentiality and site security.

While it may seem perverse to grant the Maritime Heritage Foundation permission to undertake the salvage of “at risk” items before the result of the investigation into the 2012 activity is known, thePipeLine’s principle concern is that an echo of the true voice of OMEX management may lie in a highly detailed article published on the US based investors web site Seeking Alpha on 24 October 2014.

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In fact it is widely believed by financial analysts that acknowledged Long Investor in OMEX, Scott Vincent of Green River Asset, the author of the piece, only publishes material favourable to OMEX senior management. This is useful to OMEX because as an independent operator Vincent can place material in the public domain as “analysis” which OMEX cannot issue themselves because of the rules of the US Securities and Exchange Commission [SEC].  Certainly the long and highly detailed article discussing the implications of the UK announcement, complete with quotations, references and detailed financial analysis,  was published within hours the public announcement of the deal in London and New York. Obviously it would have been entirely inappropriate for OMEX management, or Board members who would have known about the MoD decision, to supply information for such an article to an independent investor in advance so thePipeLine concludes they did not.

ThePipeLine also believes that Green River Asset has the predictive abilities of famed “News of the World” Astrologer “Mystic Meg”.

Whatever Crystal Ball[s] the article emerged from, the “Mystic Green” analysis says this…

“Please note that the UK has not signed the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. They abide by its archaeological principles, but the Convention conflicts with British law.  British law allows museums to “deaccession” items and offer them for sale. The Treasure Act of 1996 allows for treasure finds to be sold to museums or on the private market. The Portable Antiquities Scheme is much the same. Items of British cultural heritage are bought and sold every day under British law (this may be a key reason why the UK has not signed UNESCO).”

This passage is noteworthy for several reasons, most importantly the wording is very close to statements and comments made by OMEX officers, including former CEO Greg Stemm in the past, both publicly and privately.  This passage is also in reality a series of non-sequiteurs which sound authoritative, but in fact show a complete failure to understand UK practice and the purpose of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. The passage also fails to understand that the archaeological principles embodied in the Annex to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage which forms British Government policy for Maritime Archaeology which are regarded as inseparable from the principles in the Annex relating to funding.  The analysis also fails to understand the operation of the Museums Association Code of Ethics which sets a very high threshold before a Museum can sell any element of a collection and completely forbids the sale of material to pay running costs.

In short if this is what Odyssey actually intends it shows the same understanding of the legal and regulatory situation in the UK as they brought to the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes debacle and legal observers say this could represent a short cut to an appointment with “M’learned friends” in the British Courts.

However, “Mystic Green’s” legal fantasy does not end there. The article adds [our italics].

“With salvage of the Victory potentially starting around year-end, this may also provide OMEX with near-term cash. Odyssey could arrange another bank line with 5th 3rd, or another entity, to partially monetize coins as they are salvaged.”

This is utterly misleading. There is a lead time of approximately three months in the granting of a Marine Management Organisation Licence so work could not actually begin until the beginning of February 2015 at the earliest. Of course that is in the middle of the northern European Winter, not the time of year to be undertaking dangerous open sea salvage recoveries. At the very least, to attempt such work at that time of year would be to risk a large number of expensive days lost to weather. The usual period for maritime archaeology in the English Channel is approximately April to the beginning of October.

Secondly, “Mystic Green” River suggests a funding stream based on monetising coins from the wreck which would not be permitted under the terms of the UNESCO Annex and what has hitherto been understood to be British Government Policy.

Finally the article goes on to suggest this

“Since half of the assessed value in artifacts will accrue to OMEX and that value will likely be monetized through trade artifacts, the net proportion of trade goods due to the company will be greater than the 80 percent stated in the contract.”

A comment added to the article by the author fleshes out the legal reasoning behind this blatant work around of the letter and principles of the UNESCO Convention which supposedly underly the Key Management Principles for historic shipwrecks laid down by the UK Government.  [Our Italics]

“The trade goods will not be accessioned. The Receiver of Wreck would hold them until it is established that they have no owner, then they would go to MHF (not to the Crown because Victory does not reside in territorial waters – UNCLOS applies) . MHF and OMEX would then split their value per the terms of their private agreement. ”

thePipeLine’s believes that this article may signal a scheme, which may or may not be put into practice, for OMEX and the Maritime Heritage Foundation to subvert the binding commitments to observe the spirit and letter of UNESCO, the Museums Association Code of Ethics and the Government Key Management Principles, apparently expressed in Mr Fallon’s statement to Parliament.

“Our concern is enhanced by the close links between senior management of Odyssey and the Scientific Board of the Maritime Heritage Foundation.”

Our concern is enhanced by the close links between senior management of Odyssey and the Scientific Board of the Maritime Heritage Foundation.  As Heritage Minister Ed Vaizey confirmed in Parliament on 24 February 2014, Odyssey and the Maritime Heritage Foundation share the same archaeological consultant/contractor.

Mr Vaizey: At a recent roundtable meeting, I met a representative of Wreck Watch International, who is also a consultant to Odyssey Marine Exploration. This was in his capacity as archaeological contractor to the Maritime Heritage Foundation.

Information in the public domain confirms that the consultant/contractor referred to by Mr Vaizey is indeed “Wreck Watch International” operated by Dr Sean Kingsley who lists Odyssey as a client on his website and is a familiar figure from the series of TV Reality/Infomercial/Documentary programmes “Treasure Quest” set on board Odyssey’s research vessel Odyssey Explorer. Of course it must be stressed that there is no evidence or suggestion that Dr Kingsley has done anything improper.  However, the perception of the Maritime Heritage Foundation being in the pocket of Odyssey, however incorrect that perception might be,  is inescapable.  Perceived conflict of interest in public life is a particularly sensitive issue for the UK Government at the moment. The UK Home Secretary Theresa May has recently had to accept the resignation of two prospective chairs of the Home Office inquiry into historic child sex abuse simply because the persons concerned knew a potential subject of the inquiry in a social context.  In the case of HMS Victory 1744, aside from the shared consultant/contractor, it is also the case that Lord Lingfield is a senior Conservative Peer with known direct links to a number of senior Ministers in the Cameron Cabinet.

The issue of the lack of independent advice to the Maritime Heritage Foundation has been raised before. In February 2012, it emerged that the commercial salvage contract between Odyssey and the Maritime Heritage Foundation, which was announced within hours of the gifting of the ship to the MHF in 2012, was granted without the charity taking such advice or putting the job out to tender, much to the disquiet of English Heritage.  After the first meeting of the Advisory Group for HMS Victory 1744 at which a representative of Wreck Watch International, understood to be Dr Kingsley, was present to assist the chair of the Maritime Heritage Foundation Lord Lingfield with his presentation, a senior officer of English Heritage expressed concern in writing to the Ministry of Defence that Lord Lingfield’s charity lacked even the most basic technical and legal knowledge and had embarked on the salvage contract without taking independent advice.

thePipeLine calls for the appointment of an independent Project Manager to oversee the HMS Victory 1744 Project 

However unfair the perception might be, this perceived conflict of interest suggested by the close links between Odyssey and the Maritime Heritage Foundation coupled with the potential for the subversion of the intent of the Key Management Principles discussed above, leads thePipeLine to call for the appointment of an independent Project Manager to oversee the HMS Victory 1744  project on behalf of the Government and English Heritage.

  • thePipeLine also believes that the various organisations which represent British Archaeology , and indeed the highly respected members of the various expert panels who advised the Ministry of Defence and Maritime Heritage Foundation on the Victory 1744 process,  must as a matter of urgency press OMEX/MHF to publicly repudiate the analysis published by Green River Asset and confirm that all material from the HMS Victory site will be accessioned by the MHF and that no material will be sold.
  • This issue must also be pressed with the UK Government, which must in turn make clear that not to accession material and to attempt to sell material from the HMS Victory 1744 site, would be in breach of the Deed of Gift, the UNESCO Convention Annex and the Government’s own recently published key management principles for historic military wrecks and will not be permitted.

If Odyssey/MHF and the UK Government will not publicly repudiate the Green river article and commit to maintain all the items from the site  as a single accessioned collection as the UNESCO Annex demands, then thePipeLine suggests all bets are off, and so should be the project.

…the sector may actually be buying what is merely pre Christmas window dressing before a January Sale.”

Treasure Hunting of “high value” shipwrecks as currently practiced by Odyssey can never be archaeology and any commercial sale of the artifacts from an archaeological site is unacceptable to the vast majority of archaeologists worldwide. Therefore the complicity of Ministers in the UK Government in a plan such as that trailed for HMS Victory 1744 by Green River Asset would almost certainly lead to the UK becoming pariahs in the Worldwide cultural community.


As things stand thePipeLine cannot see the announcement of the HMS Victory recovery as a victory for those who promote the UNESCO Convention.  It is clear from his many previous comments and actions when he was CEO of the Company, Odyssey’s current Chairman of the Board, Gregg Stemm, seeks to undermine the core principles of the UNESCO Convention and to undermine, or even dispose of completely, any form of outside regulation preventing his Neo LIberal vision of a free market in underwater archaeology.   For OMEX shareholders this approach reached its disastrous climax with the humiliation of the salvage of 17.5 tons of silver from the Spanish Frigate Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes which was found to be “contrary to Law” in the US Courts.  The Mercedes case saw the same OMEX senior management team  as are running the HMS Victory project excoriated by US Judge Stephen Merryday as manipulating and misrepresenting their current actions and historical evidence in a Court of Law for commercial advantage.

The danger is that if the archaeological sector simply accepts and applauds this deal publicly on grounds of a narrow view based on an apparent acceptance by Odyssey and the Maritime Heritage Foundation of the terms of the UNESCO,Convention, and the other regulatory codes, but there is no direct monitoring to enforce those principles and codes, the sector may actually be buying what is merely pre Christmas window dressing before a January Sale.

Of course all may proceed smoothly, the HMS Victory 1744 project may produce great archaeology in full compliance with the UNESCO Annex, the Museums Association  Code and the Governments Key Management Principles.  No-one denies  Odyssey’s technical and archaeological team can be  good at what they do if they are allowed to do archaeology and not commercial salvage.  Indeed, there would be a welcome for a new face of Odyssey which might be capable of joining a community of World Archaeology.  A community where work is undertaken for the knowledge and the public good and is not distorted either by the need to please shareholders or the desire of  managers, who might be seen by some as more Gordon Gekko than Gordon Childe, to use the material remains of the past as high risk casino chips.

However, if the HMS Victory Project continues with no independent control, checks and balances and it transpires that the real face of Odyssey Marine Exploration and the Maritime Heritage Foundation is that voiced through Green River Asset, then the British Government, English Heritage and the archaeological community may wake up to discover that they have let a charity which is effectively a front for Odyssey Marine Exploration, open the door of the chicken run and let in the Fox.  For that the Government would never be forgiven.

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

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