From shipwreck in Italy, a treasure now beckons

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By VANESSA GERA, Associated Press

ROME (AP) — In the chaotic evacuation of the Costa Concordia, passengers and crew abandoned almost everything on board the cruise ship: jewels, cash, champagne, antiques, 19th-century Bohemian crystal glassware and thousands of art objects, including 300-year-old woodblock prints by a Japanese master.

Now, a veritable treasure lies beneath the pristine Italian waters where the luxury liner ran aground last month.

Though some objects are bound to disintegrate, there is still hoard enough to tempt treasure seekers — just as the Titanic and countless shipwrecks before have lured seekers of gold, armaments and other riches for as far back as mankind can remember.

It may be just a matter of time before treasure hunters set their sights on the sunken spoils of the Costa Concordia, which had more than 4,200 people on board.

"As long as there are bodies in there, it's considered off base to everybody because it's a grave," said Robert Marx, a veteran diver and the author of numerous books on maritime history, underwater archaeology and treasure hunting. "But when all the bodies are out, there will be a mad dash for the valuables."

The Mafia, he said, even has underwater teams that specialize in going after sunken booty.

The Costa Concordia was essentially a floating luxury hotel and many of the passengers embarked on the ill-fated cruise with their finest clothes and jewels so they could parade them in casinos and at gala dinners beneath towering chandeliered ceilings.

On top of that was the massive wealth belonging to the ship itself: elegant shops stocked with jewelry, more than 6,000 works of art decorating walls and a wellness spa containing a collection of 300-year-old woodblock prints by Katsushika Hokusai, a Japanese artist most famous for his work of a giant wave framing Mount Fuji in the distance.

"It's now a paradise for divers," said Hans Reinhardt, a German lawyer who represents 19 German passengers seeking compensation for their losses. He said some of his clients traveled with diamond-studded jewels and other heirlooms that had been in their families for generations.

"They lost lots of jewelry — watches, necklaces, whatever women wear when they want to get well dressed," Reinhardt said. "They wanted to show off what they have."

The massive cruise liner itself is worth $590 million (euro450 million), but that doesn't take into account the value of all other objects on board, said Costa Crociere SpA, the Italian company that operated the Costa Concordia.

Among the sunken objects are furniture, a vast art collection, computers, wine, champagne, as well as whatever valuables were locked away in safes in private cabins, the Costa Crociere press office said.

"Quantifying this is impossible because unfortunately the ship has sunk," Costa Crociere said. "Until the ship is recovered there's no way to know what can be saved and what can't."

The company still legally owns the ship and the passengers own their sunken objects. So any treasure seekers would be breaking the law and subject to arrest — and the looted objects subject to seizure, the Coast Guard said.

An American passenger, Georgia Ananias, said she debated how much jewelry to take on the cruise, and in the end opted for a diamond pendant, matching diamond earrings and other pieces from Tiffany's.

"I thought this would be a beautiful vacation and I wanted to look nice and enjoy these pieces," she said by telephone from her home in Los Angeles.

Now, they're all gone. Adding to her loss, someone took a credit card from her purse after she dropped it on the deck as she struggled to evacuate, and racked up $3,000 in charges on it. "How could anybody be that low?" she said.

The ship ran aground off the Tuscan island of Giglio after the captain, Francesco Schettino, veered from his approved course, apparently to move closer to entertain passengers with a closer view of the island — a common cruise ship practice. Schettino is now under house arrest, facing possible charges of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship before all passengers were evacuated. Seventeen people are confirmed dead in the Jan. 13 shipwreck, with 15 more still missing.

For now, the ship's wreckage has been impounded by authorities and is surrounded by rescue workers, cleanup crews and scientists monitoring its stability on the rocky perch where it ran aground. Civil Protection, the agency running the rescue effort, says there is so much activity surrounding it that authorities don't see a risk of looting yet. It also says it plans to remove the wreckage before looters can reach it.

Authorities have passed a decree preventing anyone from coming within a nautical mile of the wreck, a ruling that will remain in effect as long as the huge liner is still in place, the Coast Guard said.

"The ship is being guarded 24 hours a day. It's not possible to even get close," said Lt. Massimo Maccheroni, a Coast Guard official.

Civil Protection director Franco Gabrielli says it could take seven to 10 months to remove the 950-foot-long (290 meter-long) ship once a contract is awarded for the job. Costa Crociere said in a statement Thursday that it expected to award a contract by the end of March.

But Marx, whose 64 books include "Treasure Lost at Sea," says that divers inevitably make a dash for sunken loot, even at great risk, and that they treat shipwrecks as a free-for-all.

He estimates it will take four to six months before a real treasure hunt starts — in part because divers will want to avoid the rough winter sea. Some divers will also be put off because the ship is still shifting on the reef it collided into and is considered unstable.

But soon, treasure hunters will go. "Bright-eyed divers will want to make a fortune," Marx said.

He said anything that is pulled up from this now-infamous ship will have value, noting that even coal brought up from the Titanic, which sank 100 years ago, found eager buyers.

"Even the dishes, the crockery inside that ship — that's going to be worth an absolute fortune," Marx said.

Reinhardt, the German lawyer, says his clients would love nothing more than to get back their cherished valuables. But at this point they are merely counting on a cash settlement.

"They would prefer to get their original stuff," he said. "But they don't have hope."

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