Art Market: Wreck's gold treasures lure buyers

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The Independent Online
TREASURE-HUNTERS went to Sotheby's in New York yesterday to buy 18th-century gold found off the coast of Uruguay last year.

This was their chance to buy coins, ingots and bars recovered from the murky waters off Montevideo. They are believed to have come from either a Spanish galleon sunk by English pirates in 1792 or a Portuguese vessel that went down in storms in 1752. Identifying the vessel has proved difficult: there are about 1,000 wrecks in the area.

Most of the coins sold on Wednesday doubled or tripled estimates. A shell-shaped gold box sold for dollars 88,000 ( pounds 59,340), against an expected dollars 20,000 to dollars 30,000.

The trove was discovered by Ruben Collado, head of a salvage company operating under a licence from the Uruguayan government, with which he will split the auction's profits. Research took two years: much of it involved listening to local legends about where ships went down. One told of a 'strong swimmer of African origin' who used to return with coins in his teeth, until he was stabbed by bandits. Mr Collado said such legends helped the team strike lucky: the first coin was found last April. Mr Collado said: 'The most important qualification for a diver is optimism. You have to be very patient.' He is among a relatively small number of salvage operators. Many go broke as it is such a time-consuming and costly business requiring sophisticated, expensive equipment.

Mr Collado, who mentioned one treasure-hunter who devoted 14 years to searching for a single wreck, has been a professional diver for 30 years and a treasure- hunter for 15. He said that its attractions lie in the adventure and the excitement. 'The money comes in handy as well,' he added. The estimate for the sale is between pounds 1.6m and pounds 2m.

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