Cash-strapped governments turning to sunken treasure

The Takeaway

Story by The Takeaway. Listen to audio above for full report.

So it won’t solve any real budget problems, but $18 million is certainly nothing to sneeze at.

The British government is the most recent country to partner with private industry to haul up a ship rich in treasure that was sent to the sea floor decades ago.

The S.S. Mantola, a British steamship, was sunk by a German U-Boat in 1917 with a cargo valued, in today’s terms, at nearly $18 million. New technology means that the ship’s cargo can finally be brought to the surface.

Mark Gordon, the president and COO of Odyssey Marine Exploration, which found the Mantola wreck, says this is just the tip of the iceberg — in terms of wrecks on the sea floor.

“We’ve got some of the best scientists and technologists in the world on board our vessels,” Gordon said. We’re employing some of the most cutting edge technology to map the sea floor and find these vessels.”

But that’s actually the smaller of the two wrecks. Earlier this month, Gordon’s crew working in the same area found another ship with more than $200 million worth of silver on board. Combined, the two wrecks are expected to generate about $250 million, Gordon said.

“That’s not a bad day at the office,” he joked. 

The next step is to actually bring the cargo up, which is expected to happen some time next spring. Then it’s time to make payment. For funding the exploration and taking the risks to get the cargo to the surface, the British government, which owns both of those wrecks, will give 80 percent of the value of the cargo to Odyssey. The remaining 20 percent will go into the British treasury.

If the wrecks are as valuable as expected, that will mean about $200 million for Gordon’s company and $50 million to the British government.

Gordon says there are, according to the United Nations, 3 million shipwrecks on the sea floor with cargoes he estimates to be worth, “safely,” billions and billions of dollars just waiting to be hauled up.


“The Takeaway” is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what’s ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH.

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