Archaeology breakthrough: £150million World War 1 shipwreck treasure discovery
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The SS Mantola was a passenger steamer of the British-India Steam Navigation Company. Launched more than 100 years ago by the Barclay Curle Company, the ship sailed for less than a year before it was sunk by a German U-boat while carrying a large quantity of silver bullion. The British Ministry of War Transport paid a War Risk Insurance Claim for £110,000 for the silver that was on board when the vessel hit the seabed.
But, incredibly, a century on, its wreck was discovered by Odyssey Marine Exploration off the south-west coast of Ireland while searching for another ship – the SS Gairsoppa – in the area.
The Department for Transport awarded a salvage contract to the company to begin recovery of the cargo in return for Odyssey Marine retaining 80 percent of the value recovered – with that total estimated to be around £12million.
A DfT spokesperson said in 2011: “The contract for the salvage of the SS Mantola was awarded to Odyssey Marine Exploration after they discovered the wreck during their search for the SS Gairsoppa.
“While we do not comment on the specifics of such commercial arrangements, the rate of return on this contract is higher than average, with the salvage company taking all the risks and upfront costs.”
The Gairsoppa was on its way back to Britain from India when it ran low on fuel in stormy weather, and tried to divert to Galway harbour, but it was spotted and sunk by the German submarine.
It carried an estimated seven million ounces of silver, said to be worth about £150million – the largest haul of precious metal ever discovered at sea.
A year later, the same team found the ship with 1,203 bars of silver, weighing 1.4 million ounces recovered from its wreck.
Odyssey Marine Exploration said the haul represented about 43 percent of the Gairsoppa’s cargo of precious metal.
The silver was transported to a secure location in the UK.
Insurance on the silver, valued at £325,000 in 1941, was made by the Government to the owner, allowing the state to claim any recovered bullion.
Odyssey said insurance company sources believe that silver cargo worth £600,000, in 1941 values, may have been lost that year.
Odyssey chief executive Gregg Stemm said the Gairsoppa silver recovery, in international waters, was a complex operation.
He stated: “Our capacity to conduct precision cuts and successfully complete the surgical removal of bullion from secure areas on the ship demonstrates our capabilities to undertake complicated tasks in the very deep ocean.
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“This technology will be applicable to other modern shipwreck projects currently being scheduled as well as our deep ocean mineral exploration activities.”
But, Odyssey’s bid for the treasure of SS Mantola is even more complicated.
Their agreement over the treasure lapsed in September 2015 and the Government no longer makes such deals.
Odyssey staked its claim for ownership in a 2017 lawsuit, but no further details have been released since.
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