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  Court denies emeralds the coveted title of 'sunken treasure'

February 15, 2013

A long running court drama over the fate of 70 kilograms of emeralds that allegedly were discovered on the seafloor off the coast of the Florida Keys drew to a close at the end of January, with a decision that settled ownership but not really the provenance of the gems.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King decided that while real estate investor and amateur treasure-hunter Jay Miscovich and his business partner Steve Elchlepp may retain possession of the emeralds, they still had failed to prove that they first discovered them as claimed - that is to say scattered on the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico.

The consequence of the decision is that Miscovich and Elchlepp will have difficulty claiming that the gemstones are sunken treasure, and that may significantly dent their value. This is particularly significant because the emeralds, which originally were reported to have been high quality with a value of about $10 million, are now said to be overwhelmingly low quality gems. If they had been shown to originate from a sunken treasure, their net worth would have risen significantly.

Miscovich and Elchlepp had been sued by the company of the late Mel Fisher, who achieved fame in 1985 for finding the 1622 wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha, with a $450 million cache that included 40 tons of gold and silver, as well as Colombian emeralds.

"When all is said and done, there are two options," the judge wrote. "Jay and Steve legitimately found lost stones on the floor of the Gulf, or Jay and Steve placed stones acquired elsewhere on the ocean floor in order to 'find' them and thereby establish an ancient provenance and greatly enhance the value of the stones and the reputation of the men as treasure salvors."

"There is just as much support for the theory that Jay and Steve planted the stones as there is for the assertion that they found them," he continued. "The court cannot simply accept the uncontradicted testimony of Jay and Steve that they followed a treasure map to the site, dove to the floor, and found the emeralds. Each story represents one possible interpretation of entirely circumstantial evidence, and neither persuades the court."

The Fischer's company originally asserted that the emeralds came from the Atocha and Santa Margarita sites, but after the assessment that the emerald's value was much lower than first thought, they claimed that Miscovich and Elchlepp had committed fraud by misrepresenting the true identity of the stones.

Speaking to the Florida Key News, Kim Fisher, Mel's son of famed salvor Mel Fisher and owner of Motivation Inc., said Friday that he felt vindicated by King's ruling. "He basically said in his ruling that this was a scam," Fisher stated. "We've spent a lot of time and money on this case in an effort to protect the integrity of the legitimate treasure-hunting industry."

The saga of the sunken emeralds, which was the subject of segment on CBS's 60 Minutes news magazine, began when Miscovich claimed that three years ago he had bought a map and some coordinates in the Gulf of Mexico from a friend in a bar in Key West for $500. These, he said, had led him to an underwater cache of 65,000 emeralds.

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