Treasure Hunters Battle Over a Trove of Emeralds

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Miscovich and Elchlepp were instead returning with thousands of stones. Each night, the pair cleaned salt and sand from the gems with toothbrushes. Over the course of about 70 trips to the site, with two- or three-hour-long dives for each trip, they pulled out 150 pounds, piece by piece, by hand. More always waited on the bottom.

The pair also scanned the internet for information on the gems' provenance. Emeralds come from Colombia. During the colonial era, the Spanish had pulled their share from the Muzo mines. It was logical that emeralds may have scattered from a ship lost between the colonies and Europe. Cue the ringing cash registers.

But the pair did not come across a shipwreck. They did find debris — cannon balls that must have come from an older ship, metal piping that obviously had sunk from a modern craft. Alone, the pair couldn't really determine what was out there. To properly excavate the site, they'd need financial backing.

"If you make a trip a day, you're using up about $1,000 a day basically," Miscovich says. "Fuel is about $600 because you're running the generators constantly. Then food, water, air tanks, oil. We probably needed $250,000 to $500,000 to work this whole claim."

Miscovich dialed up his brother Scott in Hawaii and told him about the emeralds, though he held back on specifics. Scott was skeptical.

"He was almost cautious to the point of being paranoid about who would know what about the location," Scott says today. "At first, I didn't understand it. But I think after a while, we were worried about his security if word started to leak out. The only difference between some of the people that are actively involved in the treasure-hunting industry and the pirates of 200 years ago is 200 years."

Scott introduced his brother to deep-pocketed investors in New York City who might be interested in financing a unique investment with high return. These moneymen, wanting to assess the risks, demanded to know how Miscovich had found the emeralds. He told them about Cunningham — who presented a problem. If the drifter reemerged, he could put up a legal challenge.

Miscovich unrolled the same Cunningham story that would later sound unbelievable on the witness stand. He claimed he didn't have any way to contact the drifter; he had always called from different numbers, and Misco­vich didn't know where he lived. The investors said if Cunningham ever showed up again, offer him $50,000 for his release on the claim.

In April, Miscovich's phone rang. Cunningham was going to be visiting Latrobe soon. Miscovich — who was then bouncing among Key West, Latrobe, and New York — arranged to meet and got a contract drawn up, just in case.

At a local bar, Miscovich told Cunningham he'd found some valuables — but didn't specify thousands of emeralds — near but not at the exact spot that had been marked on Cunningham's treasure map.

Miscovich says Cunningham was happy to take cash rather than get involved in a legal mess. A notary came to the bar and witnessed Cunningham sign the contract and accept cash. Then, Cunningham disappeared — completely. Later, no one would be able to find him. He couldn't be reached by phone and didn't have a Facebook page, and mutual friends didn't know where he might have gone. This is the part of Miscovich's story that's hardest to swallow, even among his supporters.

Court records show that by September 2010, the Miscovich brothers, Elchlepp, and eight other investors formed a company called Emerald Reef LLC to salvage the site. Elchlepp stayed in Key West, dangerously diving alone, each time handing his girlfriend a sealed envelope with the GPS coordinates, in case he didn't return. His partner took meetings in Manhattan — sessions with lawyers, marketers, moneymen, and gem experts.

Around this time, Miscovich walked into the New York office of Josh Lents, an expert with the Gemological Appraisal Laboratory. "He started pulling these specimens out one by one," the expert recalls. "Before I knew it, my entire desk was fully covered by these green rough emeralds. It took me a little while to actually realize what was in front of me." When Miscovich asked Lents about how much a few of the pieces could fetch, the expert couldn't answer. He wasn't sure comparable specimens existed in the world. Initial spectroscopic tests showed the stones were in fact emeralds, probably from Colombia. But the pieces were so rare — large chunks, colored a deep green, sprinkled with valuable pyrite — that Miscovich might be able to ask whatever he wanted.

Carats aside, what really spikes the price of precious gems are their backstories. One sample emerald was appraised at $25,000 by a New York City lab, but Sotheby's valued the same rock at $40,000. Another appraisal said 25 of the pieces could fetch more than $100,000 each. But if Miscovich had proof these had come from a famous shipwreck, the price could easily quadruple.

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Kyle Swenson