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Copyright © 2001 The Associated Press
The Associated PressAP Worldstream
April 3, 2001, Tuesday
SECTION: International News
LENGTH: 588 words
HEADLINE: Court hears arguments over rights to shipwreck, gold coins
BYLINE: By DENISE LAVOIE, Associated Press Writer
Nearly a century after the luxury liner RMS Republic sank off the Massachusetts coast, treasure hunters are still battling over the ship's cargo, which some believe includes gold coins now worth more than dlrs 1 billion.
A federal judge on Tuesday heard arguments on a deep sea diver's request to dismiss a claim to the treasure by the man who discovered the shipwreck off Nantucket in 1981. The judge did not immediately issue a decision.
The 600-foot (180-meter) British ship collided in fog with an Italian vessel, the S.S. Florida, just before dawn on Jan. 23, 1909. The Republic, owned by J.P. Morgan's White Star Shipping Co., was carrying 484 passengers and almost as many crew members on a pleasure cruise to the Mediterranean. The Florida held 650 immigrants bound from Europe to New York.
The Republic capsized and sank, but most of the passengers and crew were saved. Six people perished.
Martin Bayerle, a New York diver, discovered the shipwreck 20 years ago and led a team that spent more than two months exploring and recovering artifacts from the wreck in 1987.
Bayerle claims his research shows that the ship carried two gold shipments, including a U.S. Navy payroll destined for Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet stationed at Gibraltar and gold coins bought by the Bank of France to help Russia's Czar Nicholas II fight the Bolsheviks.
He maintains that the gold had a face value of between dlrs 3,250,000 and dlrs 3,350,000 in 1909 and anywhere from dlrs 400 million to dlrs 1.6 billion today. Bayerle had the only claim to the wreck until William Cleary, a sport diver from New Jersey, retrieved a porthole and china shards in 1998. Cleary maintains that Bayerle gave up any claims he had to the treasure by not doing any salvage work at the site for 12 years.
In October, the U.S. government entered the fray, filing a claim for the loss of any U.S. gold aboard the Republic.
In U.S. District Court on Tuesday, lawyers for Bayerle argued that Cleary has no claim to the shipwreck or its treasure. Attorney Timothy Barrow said Cleary is instead claiming the rights to debris found at a site nearly six miles away from where Bayerle says the Republic is submerged.
''The wreck of the Republic can only lie in one place,'' Barrow said. ''Mr. Cleary has not provided any proof. ... There is nothing to determine that he was on the Republic.''
Cleary's lawyer, Peter Hess, was out of the country and unable to attend Tuesday's hearing.
Cleary, himself a personal injury lawyer, said in a telephone interview that he has already told a judge in New Jersey that his lawyer included the wrong location for the wreck in his earlier court filings. He said he and Bayerle are battling over the same shipwreck site, about 55 miles ( 88.495 kilometers) south of Nantucket.
''I am the latest salvor. He abandoned his claim before I filed mine,'' Cleary said. ''I have a presence on the wreck and I have a substantial likelihood of success.''
U.S. District Judge Walter J. Skinner gave no indication on when he would issue his ruling on Cleary's request to dismiss Bayerle's claim to the treasure or to transfer the case back to federal court in Newark, New Jersey, where Cleary has challenged Bayerle's claim.
Richard Evans, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, told Skinner that the government isn't sure if there was gold aboard the Republic, but primarily relied on the research done by Bayerle's firm, Martha's Vineyard Scuba Headquarters Inc., to file its claim.
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