Their value may be dwindlingly small in comparison with the losses caused by trade wars or tariffs, but even in 2018, gold treasures have the potential to capture the world's attention.
In 2016, a possible Nazi gold train in Poland kept observers in suspense, even though there still aren't any traces of it two years later. There's a good chance that this year's treasure-hunt story will come out of South Korea, where a company claimed this week that it has discovered a sunken Russian warship.
Shinil Group, a recently founded company based in Seoul, released submarine footage of what its analysts believe could be the shipwreck of the Dmitrii Donskoi, a Russian cruiser that vanished 113 years ago during the Russo-Japanese war. Shinil is speculating on what the ship may have carried: 200 tons of gold that supposedly might be worth $132 billion. (It's unclear how the company compiled those estimates.) The shipwreck is more than 1,300 feet beneath the surface.
There's more than one reason to remain skeptical, including the fact that similar claims go back decades and were used by at least one company to artificially raise its stock price to avoid bankruptcy. That's why South Korean officials have announced they will monitor the share prices of a company in which Shinil recently invested for indications of possibly deceptive tactics.
In the past, Russian researchers also repeatedly voiced skepticism over the decades-old claim that the Dmitrii Donskoi may have transported hundreds of tons of gold. Transporting the treasure via train would have been far safer and a more likely scenario, they said.
And the discovery of the shipwreck itself also doesn't appear to be new: A government-run South Korean institute says it found the wreck in 2003, detecting no traces of possible gold boxes.
Unlike previous companies that raised similar speculation over the Russian naval cruiser, however, Shinil appears to be willing to comply with a South Korean demand to pay at least 10 percent of the ship's estimated value as a deposit before recovery operations can start. So far, no request has been submitted, and it is unclear how much the company would have to pay.
If the government based its calculation on the company's $132 billion claim, Shinil would have to deposit at least $13.2 billion — even though it is still unclear how much it would be allowed to keep of any possible gold that may be found in the shipwreck.
Hundreds of companies worldwide specialize in scouring the oceans for treasure in as many as 3 million sunken ships, according to UNESCO estimates. Fewer than 5,000 of those shipwrecks are believed to hold substantial amounts of valuable goods.
Whenever private treasure-hunting companies succeed and come across boxes filled with gold or silver, there is a high likelihood that the finding will draw lawsuits by countries or private stakeholders who claim they deserve a share.
Determining who keeps treasures found at sea is complicated, and there's no straightforward answer. The first key question for officials will be the timeline, which could theoretically play in Shinil's favor: The individuals who owned any possible treasure hidden in the South Korean shipwreck won't be alive anymore, so instead of having to return the recovered goods — while being able to request a reward — the company would fall into the “treasure hunting” category.
But Russia could argue that it retains full ownership — a claim that would be justified under international law as long as it did not infringe upon South Korea's sovereignty.
And with the shipwreck located about one mile off a South Korean island, that's likely to be the case. Countries may claim parts of treasures if the ships that carried them were state-owned or if the discoveries were made near their shores in territorial waters, as specified by U.N. treaties. It's up for interpretation which rule supersedes if the varying laws clash, however.
If Shinil's speculation turns out to be true, the shipwreck would be one of the world's most astonishing treasure finds in recent history — and a likely source of a diplomatic and legal tug of war.
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