Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Strange Treasure Story


I am constantly amazed by the odd things that happen in this strange world. 

Take the case of Jay Miscovich, a diver who met a drifter in a Key West bar. The man, who worked for Jay now and then, just happened to have an odd brown-glazed piece of pottery he'd found while diving with friends, plus a map marked 'pirate wreck' for sale.
    Jay pays him $500. After some checking -- and diving trips at the site where he finds nary a trace of gold or silver -- Jay, along with his business partner and fellow diver Steve Elchlepp, stumbles onto more than 150 pounds of Columbian emeralds scattered across the ocean floor, painstakingly sieved out of the sand during more than 70 trips.

    Josh Lentz, an expert with the Gemological Appraisal Laboratory, examines the emeralds. "He started pulling these specimens out one by one," the expert recalls. "Before I knew it, my entire desk was fully covered by these green rough emeralds. It took me a little while to actually realize what was in front of me." Deep green chunks, sprinkled with pyrite which make them even more rare. Lents isn't sure any comparable specimens even exist in the world. They could be worth tens of thousands, millions... priceless.
    A new multi-million dollar treasure discovered. Hooray for Jay...right?

Not so fast.

Jay and Steve are running out of money. They bring in investors. Those same 'moneyman' are trying to hog the profits, according to Jay and Steve. The investors counter that the two divers are actually hiding emeralds, so they don't have to share. A lawsuit ensues, making the emeralds' existence public knowledge. Finally, it's settled. Now Jay and Steve's company, JTR Enterprises, can file an Admiralty salvage claim for the stones.

Members of Mel Fisher's treasure-hunting family promptly file suit. 
According to them, these emeralds are actually loot from the fabulous Atocha -- a galleon wreck they've been excavating for decades, and have the salvage rights to. After all, they haven't yet found a 70-pound keg of emeralds that they claim was on the ship. (Although emeralds have been discovered on their site, including a fabulous emerald ring.) These must be the same stones -- so the emeralds belong to them.

Did I happen to mention that Jay's find is thirty miles away from the Atocha site? (Fisher's family says distance is irrelevent...the Atocha must have sprayed treasure across the ocean floor as it gradually broke apart.) Experts testify that the direction is wrong for that to have happened.

When that theory isn't working, the Fisher family then alleges that Jay and Steve stole the emeralds from the Atocha site, along with one of their divers. 

To make things even more interesting, a Sixty Minutes crew films the story, then sends some of the emeralds to Europe for analysis. The results of that test suggest that the stones may possibly have been treated with a modern epoxy. Jay and Steve don't know what to think -- other than sticking to their original story.

Another expert examines the stones at the hearing - and concludes they don't come from the Atocha at all. In fact, he doesn't think they've been underwater for more than a few months. And as far as millions go, he values the entire batch as less than $50,000. "In all my 56 years in the emerald business, I have not seen emeralds of such poor quality as the rough alluvial emerald beryl material present," the jeweler writes.

The Fishers finally drop their claim to salvage -- but then switch gears again, and claim Jay and Steve are a couple of con men who 'salted' the emeralds on-site! A sanctions hearing is scheduled for this summer; if the Fishers' claims are upheld, then Jay and Steve could be forced to pay their attorney fees.

The results of Jay and Steve's Admiralty claim? Because they found no shipwreck on the emerald site, "There is just as much support for the theory that Jay and Steve planted the stones as there is for the assertion that they found them," King [the judge] stated. "The Court cannot simply accept the un-contradicted testimony of Jay and Steve that they followed a treasure map to the site, dove the floor, and found the emeralds."

JTR Enterprises doesn't win salvage rights. (Neither do the Fishers, for that matter.) Now that testing's finished, Jay isn't sure what to think. Maybe the emeralds are truly from conquistador days. (The testing results were somewhat uncertain.) Maybe they're WWII vintage, instead. Or maybe they're modern profits from drug runners, dumped overboard by plan or accident.
    Josh Lentz, who has spent many hours over three years analyzing the stones, continues to insist that they're worth millions of dollars. Meanwhile, the Fishers have told their side of the story to just about every treasure bulletin and discussion board they can find. Who are these upstarts that think they can just go to an X on the map, and find treasure, just like that?

Sour grapes, on the Fishers' part?
 Or have Jay Miscovich and Steve Echlepp lied about everything from the beginning?

Jay and Steve have stashed their emeralds and refuse to dive for more, reasoning that they'll probably be followed."The site is still unprotected," Miscovich says, "and I know there's still a fortune of emeralds out there. What if someone else goes out there and files a claim on the site?"

Meanwhile, both sides' lawyers get ready for this summer's sanctions hearing. The "incidents and accidents, hints and allegations" continue. (Thanks, Paul Simon.)

Read the full story here. Amazing.

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