State fires broadside as explorer claims 300-year-old wreck

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The Independent US

They may, or may not, have found the wreck of the Griffon. But even before the discovery has been confirmed in the waters of north-eastern Lake Michigan, a dispute has broken out over who would own what remains of the 17th-century French vessel that experts have described as a "Holy Grail" of north American marine archaeology.

The Griffon vanished - almost certainly in a storm - shortly after it set off in autumn 1679 on the return leg of its maiden voyage from Niagara at the eastern end of Lake Erie, to Green Bay on Lake Michigan. The first-ever decked European-built ship to sail the Great Lakes took to the bottom a cargo of furs and a crew that included a legendary giant sailor called Luc the Dane.

The vessel was built by René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, an explorer and fur trader who navigated most of the Great Lakes, discovered the mouth of the Mississippi and named its basin area Louisiana for the "Sun King" Louis XIV. La Salle, who was not on the Griffon, died in 1687.

The wreck has been hunted ever since, and in 2001 Steve Libert, a private explorer from Virginia who has been searching for three decades, claimed he had been successful. But he has refused to say where he made the find.

Compounding the uncertainty, marine archaeologists hired by Mr Libert in May surveyed the purported wreck but could not confirm it belonged to La Salle's ship. Last week the scientists said carbon dating had established that material came from around the period. But they produced no evidence that would identify the ship.

But a row has broken out between Mr Libert and the state of Michigan over what happens should the find prove genuine. Officially, the state has possession of that part of the Great Lakes bottom lands, and "any materials there are the property of the state," a spokesman for Michigan's attorney general, said. Mr Libert might be liable, in theory at least, to criminal charges if he brings up items from the wreck.

Mr Libert, however, rejects these arguments. He says he merely wants to exhibit as much as can be recovered from the Griffon in a museum. And, his lawyers point out, the lost ship sailed under the French flag, meaning that the dispute falls under international law. France moreover, for whom Mr Libert is acting as designated explorer, would be able to claim the wreck.

That, however, raises the issue of which French government. The monarchy represented by Louis XIV came to a bloody end in 1792. "If France claims the wreck, you're talking about the King of France, which doesn't exist any more," a Michigan spokesman said. "That would be a separate matter for the State Department to take up with the French government."