Salvagers to keep share of £2.5bn treasure

The Government has signed an agreement with a US salvage firm giving up the right to gold coins worth millions of pounds from the wreck of a 17th-century British warship lost off Gibraltar.

The deal opens the way to the recovery of coins and artefacts worth up to £2.5bn that are believed to have gone down with the HMS Sussex and almost all of its 500 crew in 1694 during a violent storm.

The ship was believed to be carrying up to 10 tons of gold destined for the Duke of Savoy to buy his assistance in the Nine Years War with France.

Its whereabouts remained a mystery until the Tampa-based company Odyssey Marine Exploration recovered objects from the wreck 2,500 feet down in 2001 that led experts to believe that the ship was the 80-gun HMS Sussex. The company, which has already put more than £2m into the operation, said it would be the deepest archaeological excavation of a colonial-era shipwreck ever undertaken.

Under the public private partnership deal struck in September, Odyssey Marine Exploration will get 80 per cent of the coin proceeds up to $45m (£29m), 50 per cent from $45m to $500m and 40 per cent for anything above that. Artefacts of cultural significance will go to the Government, according to the Ministry of Defence.

The deal is likely to lead to controversy with European archaeologists firmly set against making profits from such an operation.

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