The seas were high and the fog thick in December 1746 when the Prince de Conty, a French frigate returning from China with tea, ceramics and about 100 gold bars, sank in the Atlantic, just 10 miles from shore .
Her bounty sank beneath the waves and lay untouched for 228 years until 1974, when treasure hunters located the wreckage and illegally recovered her remains.
Five of the gold bars, engraved with Chinese characters and worth $231,000, were returned to the French Embassy in Washington on Wednesday, ending a 48-year odyssey that involved undercover detectives. sailors, international diplomacy and an appearance on “Antiques Roadshow”.
Patience, said David R. Keller, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations who oversaw the US side of the case, is key when tracking down stolen cultural objects as they travel to market.
“Items like these have a way of showing up in unexpected places years later,” he said.
His counterpart on the French side of the case, Michel L’Hour, the former head of the French Department of Underwater Archeology Research, agreed.
“Shipwreckers are often very low-key at first,” said Mr L’Hour, who remains on the case after more than four decades and vows to continue hunting the rest of the bullion. “But there is always a moment when they tell someone about their discovery and especially their desire to sell something.”
Mr L’Hour believes many ingots have been melted down and others remain hidden in what he calls someone’s “wool sock”, and he says that one that France intends to claim was sold to the British Museum.
The story of the missing ingots begins with the sinking of the Prince de Conty, who was returning home from Nanjing, China. He descended into rocky shoals near the small coastal island of Belle-Île-en-Mer, France, according to French and American officials and legal documents, and only 45 of his 229 hands survived. Rescue efforts were thwarted by the dangerous waters. The ship is quickly forgotten.
In 1974, a group of treasure divers from neighboring Brittany, acting on local lore, found the wreck in about 30 feet of ocean. The divers did not report the discovery to the authorities, as required by French law which stipulates that wrecks and their cargo in territorial waters are the property of the state. Instead, they kept the site secret and revisited it in 1975 to reclaim its bounty.
One of them took a photo of the ingots as they lay on the seabed, a photo that would prove crucial to the investigation.
Mr L’Hour caught wind of the find in the late 1970s and worked his way to the treasure hunters, who had split their hundred bars but then fell out amid arguments.
“When you have a large network of informants,” Mr. L’Hour said, “there is always someone who owes you something or who wants to get revenge on the seller by passing information on to you.”
By 1983, French prosecutors had filed charges against more than a dozen people in connection with the sinking, but most of the defendants testified that they knew nothing about bullion. But in 1995 Mr L’Hour was able to track down a copy of the underwater photo of the bullion taken by one of the divers in 1975. It showed the gold nestled between two sea creatures, a starfish and a sea urchin – useful evidence if the bullion ever surfaced.
Some of them did, in 1999, during an episode of PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow” in Tampa, Florida, when a Frenchwoman presented a set of five Chinese ingots and an underwater photo of the bars.
She said the bullion came from a different shipwreck off West Africa, but the accompanying photo she had would later prove to match one Mr L’Hour had already acquired . (It also showed the ingots alongside the starfish and sea urchin, which are native to French coastal waters, but not African.)
The five bars didn’t resurface until 2017, when a Florida woman who had acquired them shortly after they appeared on the “Roadshow” auctioned them off at a rare coin dealer in California. It was then that Mr. L’Hour received a call from someone in his “informant network” — people who scour the Internet for looted cultural objects for sale — and began to inquire. .
The auctioneers argued that there were many similar Chinese ingots traveling by sea in the 1700s. As part of their argument, they referenced the episode “Antiques Roadshow” which featured the ingots in question.
Mr. L’Hour studied an excerpt from the episode, which was still posted on the PBS website. He noticed right away, he says, that the photo of the bullion shown by the Frenchwoman on the show matched one taken by the diver in 1975. In an affidavit, Mr. L’Hour said that the Française, in fact, was the sister of the photographer’s wife.
Armed with this evidence, in 2018 the French government asked US authorities to seize the bullion from the auctioneer.
In an interview, Joe Lang, a representative for the auction house, Stephen Allen Rare Coins in Santa Rosa, California, said, “I don’t think their argument is conclusive,” but added that his company withdraws always articles “right away”. ” when presented with reasonable claims.
Each bar weighs about 13 ounces, so in terms of gold, by weight, the five bars are worth about $125,000 in the precious metals market. But officials said they have raised the estimate of their value because collectors will often pay a premium for bullion recovered from a shipwreck.
The return to France would likely have taken place earlier than Wednesday had it not been for a complaint filed by Chinese cultural heritage officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The Chinese argued that the bullion was in fact their cultural heritage property, but the agency determined that the bullion was more accurately considered “a common form of currency” distributed in various markets by Chinese traders at the time of the trip. du Conty.
Mr Keller said there were “always unexpected complications” in cultural restitution cases.