Stolen gold back in South Africa

In a case that blends colonial history with modern-day intrigue, a third of 1,200 gold coins believed to have been stolen by treasure hunters from a British ship that sank off South Africa's east coast in 1755 have been returned to South Africa after a four-year legal wrangle in London.

In a case that blends colonial history with modern-day intrigue, a third of 1,200 gold coins believed to have been stolen by treasure hunters from a British ship that sank off South Africa's east coast in 1755 have been returned to South Africa after a four-year legal wrangle in London.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in Paris has monitored the legal battle closely, as it sets a precedent for an international convention on underwater cultural heritage that it has drafted and is currently debating.

Now that the case has been settled, South Africa will display 405 of the Portuguese gold coins, worth nearly £1m, at the Bayworld Museum in Port Elizabeth.

But mystery still surrounds the looting of the East Indiaman Dodington, which sank off Bird Island in Algoa Bay in July 1755, with the loss of 270 lives; only 23 survived. It was part of a fleet supporting Lord Robert Clive's mission to drive the French out of India, which he succeeded in doing a few years later. The coins belonged to "Clive of India".

The Dodington was viewed as a treasure ship but was lost for more than 200 years. In 1977, local divers David Allen and Gerry van Niekerk found it and legally salvaged a large number of artefacts, many of them on display in Bayworld. But they found little gold.

"We were hoping to discover how and when the coins were recovered, and by whom," says maritime archaeologist John Gribble, of the South African Heritage Agency in Cape Town. "It is one of the intriguing things about this case, and the most frustrating."

The agency was alerted to the coins' whereabouts by a report in the British press that they were to be auctioned at Spink & Son. The London auctioneer refused to return the gold to a Florida coin dealer once hints of impropriety came to light. As the Dodington sank in South African territorial waters and belongs to it under local law - which makes the coins' exportation without a government permit illegal - the agency lodged a legal case in London against the dealer.

Four years later, it was agreed that South Africa would receive 405 coins and the rest would go back to the unknown seller, who claimed they were recovered from the wreck of an 18th-century pirate vessel "accidentally" found by anonymous modern divers just outside South African waters.

Even though the case was settled, it is legally interesting because there have been few successful attempts by countries to apply their heritage laws in other countries.

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