A missing Russian Imperial Navy cruiser said to contain 200 tonnes of gold bullion worth an estimated $180 billion has been discovered after being lost at sea for 113 years.
The wreck of the Dmitrii Donskoi, a 6200-tonne warship that went down during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05, was discovered on July 15 about 1.3km from the shores of Ulleungdo, a South Korean island located 120km east of the Korean Peninsula, The Telegraph reports. The ship was found under 430m of water by an international consortium led by a South Korean salvage team called the Shinil Group.
Launched on 28 March 1881, the Dmitrii Donskoi was the first Russian armoured cruiser. It was designed to attack merchant ships, and was capable of raising a full set of sails to conserve coal consumption.
On 29 May 1905, the ship was deliberately sunk by its captain, Ivan Lebedev, after taking serious damage during the Battle of Tsushima. The crew had been ordered ashore at Ulleungdo the day before. The ship is rumoured to contain 5500 boxes of gold bullion amounting to ₩150 trillion won, or $180 billion, according to The Telegraph.
Using a pair of robotic subs, the Shinil Group captured footage of the sunken ship, revealing extensive damage caused during its encounter with Japanese warships, along with cannons, deck guns, the anchor and the ship’s navigation wheel. The images also showed what appeared to be Cyrillic letters on the ship, indicating its Russian origin.
The joint salvage team, which also involves experts from China, Canada and the UK, says it plans to collect as much treasure from the ship as possible, and give half to the Russian government. The group says it will donate 10 per cent to the South Korean government for the purpose of transforming Ulleungdo island into a tourist destination.
These plans are all fine and well, except that the Shinil Group hasn’t yet applied for salvage rights with South Korea’s Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. It isn't clear if approval will be granted, or if the Shinil Group’s terms, as its outlined them, will be honoured.
South Korean law requires salvage companies to deposit 10 per cent of the estimated value of a shipwreck prior to starting its salvage works, according to The Korea Herald. If that’s the case, and given the estimates of how much gold is still on board, the Shinil Group would have to pay a ₩15 trillion, or $18 billion, deposit before it can get to work.
Naturally, the Shinil Group disagrees with this assessment, saying it found a ship, and not a treasure, so the value is closer to ₩1.2 billion ($1.4 million), leading to a more modest deposit of ₩120 million, or about $143,620. The salvage group says it will be making a formal salvage claim later this week.
This may be a lot of fuss about nothing. Russian experts say it’s highly unlikely that so much gold would’ve been placed into one basket, arguing that it would have been safer, and much wiser, to move such huge amounts of gold by train, The Telegraph reports.
What’s more, the Dmitrii Donskoi, which was packed with 12 artillery guns, 1600 tonnes of coal, and hundreds of sailors, couldn’t possibly have had enough room for the rumoured number of boxes of gold.
Even if the ship contains the gold, it isn't immediately obvious that the Shinil Group will be able to stake its claim. The governments of Russia and Japan will likely have strong opinions about the true owner of this alleged treasure.