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Copyright © 1999 The Associated Press

The Associated Press State & Local Wire

June 22, 1999, Tuesday, PM cycle

SECTION: State and Regional

LENGTH: 597 words

HEADLINE: Two treasure hunters compete for salvage rights to RMS Republic

BYLINE: JEFFREY GOLD, Associated Press Writer


    A beaux arts courtroom here is the latest forum for claims by deep-sea divers whose plans to explore the sunken RMS Republic off Cape Cod could unlock a 90-year-old mystery.

Was the Republic carrying gold coins, now worth over a billion dollars, bought by the Bank of France to help Russia's Czar Nicholas II fight the Bolsheviks?

The Republic lies under 250 feet of water in international territory off Massachusetts. Despite the daunting location, the wreck has had visitors, including two divers who are battling for exclusive salvage rights.

The most recent explorer is William P. Cleary, a personal injury lawyer in Hackensack who said he retrieved a porthole and pottery shards from the sunken liner last summer.

He then sued to make the wreck off-limits to Martin Bayerle, who discovered the wreck in 1981. Bayerle led a team that spent over two months exploring it in 1987 and developed the czar's gold theory.

Cleary, 38, argues Bayerle has abandoned any claims he had by not working the site for more than a decade.

Bayerle, 48, who had run a scuba operation from Martha's Vineyard, Mass., says he operates Internet companies in Charleston, W.Va., but has continued plans for a major expedition.

In November, U.S. District Judge John W. Bissell granted Cleary's request to "arrest" the wreck. In maritime tradition, whoever arrests a wreck has the right, with court restrictions, to dispose of it.

Although Bissell sits some 200 miles west of the wreck, he can handle the case because it was filed in Newark, even though prior decisions involving the liner were handled in federal court in Boston. International custom allows any admiralty court - which in the United States means a federal court - to assume jurisdiction and make decisions for the world.

In further proceedings on Monday, however, the judge refused Cleary's bid for an injunction barring Bayerle from conducting salvage operations within a mile of the latitude and longitude specified by Cleary.

Bayerle said that location is seven miles from the actual resting place of the Republic, and that he has no interest in that site.

So the judge ruled there is no conflict - for the moment.

Cleary promised to return with definitive coordinates after further exploration this summer and again seek to keep Bayerle away.

Bayerle asserted he is negotiating with the owners of the cargos aboard the Republic - including the Russian government - to forge settlements on dividing the spoils, and then will seek investors for a multimillion dollar retrieval project.

Cleary said he would seek investors for a major salvage effort next year if he and his team find treasure this year.

"Unlike Bayerle, I won't take a penny from other people unless I'm convinced I can give them a substantial return," he said.

In the meantime, he plans a "very careful archeological" approach, mapping the site by sonar, and then carefully removing artifacts. "We want to recover and restore all the precious antiquities," Cleary said.

As for Bayerle, he said: "If the gold is not on board, Mr. Cleary can go get all the trinkets he wants."

The 600-foot Republic, built in England and part of J.P. Morgan's White Star Shipping Co., sank after colliding in fog with an Italian ship, the Florida, just before dawn on Jan. 23, 1909, 50 miles south of Nantucket Island, Mass.

Only six lives were lost, even though the Republic carried 484 passengers and nearly as many crew on its pleasure cruise to the Mediterranean. They transferred to the Florida, which was carrying 650 immigrants to New York from Europe.

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