20 October 2005

Italian divers chase sunken treasure on sunken steamship the Polluce

A legendary treasure of jewels, gold and silver coins believed to have sunk more than 160 years ago might emerge from the waters off the island of Elba in Tuscany, according to Italian divers who this week descended to the sea floor in a pressurized chamber.

Carried secretly aboard the Genovese steamship the Polluce, the precious cargo went missing following an attack by the Neapolitan vessel Mongibello on June 17, 1841.

The 49-meter-long, 7.30-meter-wide and 3.5-meter-tall (161 feet by 24 feet by 11.5 feet) Polluce sank in less than 15 minutes.

Most likely, the reason for the attack was piracy. According to the account of the 52 survivors and reports by the French daily paper Semaphore of Marseilles, the Polluce was carrying 70,000 coins in silver and 100,000 coins in gold, plus several jewels.

It was the property of four rich passengers, according to the newspaper's report.

"The story of the Polluce is wrapped in mystery. Its name disappeared from the national and international nautical books and legends about its cargo flourished. They even said that the ship was carrying the gold-plated coach of Ferdinand IV, then king of Naples," Enrico Cappelletti, the divers' team leader and the author of a book on the Polluce, told Discovery News.

Despite many attempts to find the sunken treasure, nobody knew where to look until a few years ago.

In the late 1990s, after combing documents in state archives and libraries, a French historian pinpointed the wreck's exact spot and sold the information to a group of English adventurers.

Forging the authorizations required by the Italian law, the group reached the wreck and tried to recover its treasure during a 21-day operation in 2000.

"They used a mechanical grab and destroyed completely the wreck. They did it totally wrong. In an excavator bucket the jaws can't close properly around objects, so they lost most of the items. Coins and jewels just fell back and are now scattered on the bottom of the sea," Cappelletti said.

Nevertheless, the English adventurers managed to recover 311 French and Spanish gold coins, 2,000 silver coins, and several jewels.

Italian police got wind of the illegal operation and informed British detectives.

When the treasure came up on sale at a London auction house in 2001, Scotland Yard stepped in, seized the haul, and returned it to the Italians.

After a two-year investigation, Cappelletti managed to learn the precise location of the wreck.

"The Polluce lies about five miles out from Porto Azzurro, Elba's second-largest port, at a depth of 103 meters (338 feet),” Cappelletti said.

With the help of the Historical Diving Society of Italy, which has provided more than 500,000 euros ($600,000), Cappelletti began a new, authorized, 10-day operation on Monday.

Source: dsc.discovery.com


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