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Gold ingots returned to France from an 18th-century shipwreck

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Gold ingots returned to France from an 18th-century shipwreck

The seas were high and the fog was thick in December 1746, when the Prince de Conti, a French frigate returning home from China carrying tea, ceramics, and about 100 gold ingots, plunged into the Atlantic just 10 miles from the coast. was established.

Its bounty sank under the waves and remained untouched for 228 years until 1974, when treasure hunters unearthed the wreck and illegally cleared its remains.

On Wednesday, gold ingots engraved with Chinese characters and valued at $231,000 were returned to the French Embassy in Washington, ending a 48-year odyssey that included underwater spies, international diplomacy and the “Antics Roadshow”. “There was an appearance on.

Keller, said David R. Keller, a special agent with the Homeland Security investigation who oversees the US side of the case, is important when chasing stolen cultural items as they travel through the market.

“Objects like this have a way of showing up years later in unexpected places,” he said.

His counterpart on the French side of the matter, the former head of France’s Underwater Archaeological Research Department, Michel L’Hour, agreed.

“Wreck robbers are often very intelligent at first,” said Mr. L’Ouerre, who, after more than four decades, holds onto the matter and vows to continue hunting for the remaining bullion. “But there is always a moment when they tell someone about their search and in particular their desire to sell something.”

Mr L’Hour believes that many of the ingots have melted and others remain secret which he calls someone’s “woolen sock”, and says that the one that France intends to claim has to be sold to the British Museum. was given.

The story of the missing ingots begins with the wreck of the ship of Prince de Conti, who is on his way home from Nanjing, China. According to French and American officials and legal documents, it went down in rocky shoals near the small coastal island of Belle-le-en-Mer, France, and only 45 of its 229 hands survived. Dangerous waters thwarted rescue efforts. The ship was soon forgotten.

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In 1974, a group of amateur treasure divers from nearby Brittany, working on local lore, found the wreck about 30 feet in the ocean. The divers did not report the discovery to authorities under French law, which say the ship and her cargo in territorial waters are the property of the state. Instead he kept the site a secret, and came again in 1975 to retrieve its bounty.

One of them took a picture of the ingots on the ocean floor, a picture that would prove important during the investigation.

Mr L’Hour caught wind of the discovery in the late 1970s and found its way to treasure hunters, who split their 100 or so ingots, but later dropped out amid controversy.

“When you have a large network of informers,” said Mr. L’Hour, “there is always someone who gives you something or who wants to give you information and take it back from the seller.”

By 1983, French prosecutors had filed charges against more than a dozen people in connection with the shipwreck, yet most of the accused testified that they knew nothing about the ingots. But in 1995, Mr L’Hour was able to track down a copy of an underwater photograph of the ingots taken by one of the divers in 1975. It showed gold between two sea creatures, a starfish and a sea urchin – useful evidence if the ingots were ever exposed.

Some of them did in 1999, on an episode of PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow” in Tampa, Fla., when a French woman presented a set of five Chinese ingots and an underwater photo of the bar.

She said the ingots had come from a different shipwreck in West Africa, but the photo she had with her would later be proven to match a photo previously acquired by Mr. (It also shows ingots next to starfish and sea urchins, which are indigenous to French, but not African, coastal waters.)

The five ingots would not be revealed again until 2017, when a Florida woman acquired them shortly after a “roadshow” and sent them to auction with a rare coin dealer in California. It was then that Mr L’Hour received a call from someone in his “network of informers” – people searching the Internet for looted cultural items – and began to inquire.

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Auctioneers argued that there were many similar Chinese ingots traveling by sea in the 1700s. As part of his argument, he referenced the episode “Antiques Roadshow” which included the ingots in question.

Mr L’Hour studied a clip from the episode, which was still posted on the PBS website. He immediately saw, he said, the picture of the ingots presented by the French woman on the show. Matched one taken by a diver in 1975. In an affidavit, Mr. L’Hour declared that the French woman was, in fact, the sister of the photographer’s wife.

With that evidence, in 2018 the French government petitioned the US authorities to confiscate the ingots from the auctioneer.

In an interview, Joe Lang, a representative for the auction house, Stephen Alan Rare Coins in Santa Rosa, Calif., said “I don’t think his argument is conclusive,” but added that his company always takes back items “immediately.” “When presented with reasonable claims.

Each bar weighs about 13 ounces, so in the case of gold, by weight, five ingots are worth about $125,000 in the precious metals market. But officials said they raised their estimate of value because collectors would often pay a premium for ingots recovered from a shipwreck.

The return to France likely would have happened before Wednesday, but for a claim filed by Chinese cultural heritage officials with United States Customs and Border Protection. The Chinese argued that the ingots were in fact their cultural heritage property, but the agency determined that the ingots were more accurately seen as “a common form of currency” distributed in various markets by Chinese traders at the time of Conti’s visit. Was.

Mr Keller said there are “always unforeseen complications” in matters of cultural restoration.

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