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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bountiful Shipwreck Find Ignites Old Debate

MIAMI -- Explorers for a shipwreck exploration company based in Tampa have located a treasure estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars in what may be the richest undersea treasure recovery to date.

Deep-ocean explorers for Odyssey Marine Exploration, located more than 500,000 silver coins weighing more than 17 tons, along with hundreds of gold coins and other artifacts, in a colonial-era shipwreck in an undisclosed location in the Atlantic Ocean, the company said in a statement last week.

The retail value of the silver coins ranges from a few hundred dollars to $4,000 each, with the gold coins having a higher value, the company said.

"All recovered items have been legally imported into the United States and placed in a secure, undisclosed location where they are undergoing conservation and documentation," the statement said.

Citing security and legal concerns, Odyssey has not disclosed details about the discovery, including the origin of the coins and the identity or location of the site, dubbed Black Swan, but has said it is "beyond the territorial waters or legal jurisdiction of any country." Phone calls seeking comment were not returned on Friday.

The 6,000 silver coins that have so far been conserved are in "remarkable condition," Greg Stemm, the company's co-founder, said in the statement.

"We are excited by the wide range of dates, origins and varieties of the coins," Stemm said, "and we believe that the collecting community will be thrilled when they see the quality and diversity of the collection."

The bountiful find is sure to reignite the long-running debate between undersea explorers and archaeologists, who view such treasure hunting as modern-day piracy.

Kevin Crisman, an associate professor in the nautical archaeology program at Texas A & M University, said salvage work on shipwrecks constituted "theft of public history and world history."

He said the allure of treasure hidden under the sea seemed to blind the public to the ethical implications. "If these guys went and planted a bunch of dynamite around the Sphinx, or tore up the floor of the Acropolis, they'd be in jail in a minute," Crisman said.

Anticipating such comments, John Morris, the chief executive of Odyssey, said in a statement: "We have treated this site with kid gloves, and the archaeological work done by our team out there is unsurpassed. We are thoroughly documenting and recording the site, which we believe will have immense historical significance."

Robert Hoge, a curator at the American Numismatic Society in New York, questioned the secrecy surrounding the discovery and said that, while it may be legitamate, the findings would have been better preserved in the hands of archaeologists.

"Whenever these finds are made by treasure hunters, their first thought is to sell instead of preserving," Hoge said. "They need to make money because they're a corporation with enormous expenses. They're not there to preserve history."

The company, which had reported losses for 2005 and 2006, saw its stock rise almost 81 percent to $8.32 by the time the market closed on Friday.