Deep-sea explorers can now recover the remaining gold from a ship that sank off the South Carolina coast in 1857 and more recently has been embroiled in legal fights involving a fugitive treasure hunter, an Ohio judge has ruled in a court order obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday.
Under the deal, approved by Judge Patrick Sheeran in Columbus on Wednesday, Tampa, Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration can begin working to recover gold bars and coins from the SS Central America next month.
The SS Central America was in operation for four years during the California gold rush before it sank after sailing directly into a hurricane in September 1857 in one of the worst maritime disasters in American history; 425 people were killed and thousands of pounds of gold sank with it to the bottom of the ocean.
"The SS Central America is one of the greatest shipwreck stories of all time," Greg Stemm, Odyssey's CEO, said in a statement. "We're honoured to be working with the receiver and his team to share the next chapter of this historically important shipwreck with the world.
Experts hired to conduct a review of extensive historical materials on the shipwreck estimate the 1857 value of the remaining gold on the ship to be somewhere between $343,000 and $1.4 million, according to Odyssey Marine.
That range in today's values would be between $22 million and $88 million if the gold were melted down. But the sunken treasure's worth could be much higher — or lower — depending on the type and amount of treasure recovered.
For instance, thousands of $10 and $20 gold coins sold by Odyssey Marine from the SS Republic, which sank off the southeastern U.S. in 1865, were sold for an average of about $6,700 per coin, said company spokeswoman Liz Shows.
That's in comparison to the current $1,349 value of an ounce of melted gold.
The expedition to recover the gold isn't the first for the SS Central America.
In 1988, shipwreck enthusiast Tommy Thompson of Ohio led an expedition that found the vessel and recovered gold that later sold for $50 million to $60 million.
The treasure then became the subject of lawsuits. The litigation involved a group of Ohio investors who paid $12.7 million to fund Thompson's expedition, but say they never saw any returns and workers who said they weren't properly paid for signing confidentiality agreements to keep the ship's location and other information secret.
Thompson has been described as a secretive Howard Hughes-like figure by an attorney on one of the cases. He has been a wanted fugitive since August 2012 after he failed to show up for a key court hearing and was last seen at a mansion he was renting in Vero Beach, Florida.
Court records show that Odyssey Marine Exploration will advance the cost for the recovery. If the company fails to recover the treasure, it will absorb all the costs.
Financial terms of the agreement were not made public, although court records say that Ohio attorney and businessman Ira Kane, who was appointed receiver over Thompson's companies after he fled, will get more than 50 per cent of the recovered treasure, to be disbursed in part to shareholders and the investors who financed the 1988 recovery.
"Remember, only 5 per cent of this ship was excavated (in 1988)," Kane told The Associated Press on Thursday. "Obviously we hope that there is substantial value there and that we can return that value to our shareholders and to the creditors. If we can do that after 20-some odd years, I think it'd be a job well done."
Thompson remains a shareholder, although it's unclear how he could claim any of the treasure while he's still a fugitive.