Treasure Hunters Battle Over a Trove of Emeralds

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As long as he could get the admiralty title and secure the rights to the emeralds, Miscovich's haul could fetch a few million dollars — or a few hundred million.

But the arrangement with investors soured by late 2010. Elchlepp and the Miscoviches say the moneymen tried to yank away control. The investors charged Miscovich and Elchlepp with stashing emeralds in Pennsylvania and Key West after agreeing all the treasure would reside in a New York bank. A lawsuit was filed in Delaware, freezing the money flow.

The legal action made the find a matter of public record and tipped off the treasure community. In October 2011, the Key West Citizen ran an article announcing that a half-billion dollars in emeralds had been found 30 miles off the island. Attention fixed on Miscovich and Elchlepp, jacking up their paranoia. On internet messageboards devoted to treasure hunting (like treasurenet.com and investorshub.com), posters questioned the emeralds' authenticity and referred to Miscovich as "Scrooge Mc Duck" and the "300lb plus diver."

The pair became convinced they were being followed. Elchlepp called the police after spotting prowlers across the channel from the dive house. A CBS News crew turned up at Miscovich's Latrobe address.

By September 2011, the investors settled with the treasure hunters. Per a court order, details of the settlement are confidential, and neither side would discuss them for this article. Miscovich, with his partners, filed an admiralty action under their newly formed company, JTR Enterprises, that October, then waited, anxious Spain would intervene.

Instead, Mel Fisher's family filed a competing claim on the emeralds.

Manuel Marcial slowly picked through the milky-green stones poured out on the white linen cloth, occasionally purring approval. An elderly jeweler with a chin frosted by a dapper goatee, he sidelined a handful of promising pieces, next examining each between his fingers. On August 14, 2012, after about five hours and 80 bags of green rocks, the jeweler stepped into the office hallway filled with lawyers.

Emeralds were big business for the Fishers. Nearly 30 years after first excavating the Atocha site, Motivation claimed emeralds were still hidden below the waves. Every year, the outfit splashed promotional material with declarations that 70 pounds of the precious stones were still missing from the ship. To help fund the search, they solicited investors.

The treasure-hunting royalty dug in for a legal fight against the upstarts, but the court battle was never supposed to be about the emeralds' value. An admiralty claim is only supposed to determine who owns the find — whether said find is priceless jewels or worthless junk. But the selling price of Miscovich's find became the hot topic in court.

The legal battle became Key West's story of the decade, with fact and fiction wrestling for the spotlight.

First, the Fishers claimed that the 1622 hurricane that bashed the Atocha could have pried a barrel of emeralds loose from the ship, carried the cargo 30 miles northwest, and then smashed it near the Miscovich site, even though the actual coordinates were still a secret. Because the court had granted Mel Fisher and his heirs exclusive claims on the Atocha treasure, Motivation argued the emeralds were theirs. (Through their attorney, Hugh Morgan, the Fishers declined to comment for this article.) They wanted their emerald expert, Marcial, to inspect the material to ascertain whether it could have been from the ship.

But their claim was shoddy. Experts countered that debris from the Atocha had spilled in the opposite direction — southwest, not northwest.

In July 2012, the Fishers pulled out a new theory: Miscovich and Elchlepp had conspired with a former Fisher diver to steal emeralds from the Atocha site and later plant the stones in the new location, they said. Once again, they petitioned the court to have Marcial inspect the stones.

As the Fishers scrambled to put together a plausible theory for their ownership of the emeralds, Miscovich's own story was taking on water. A television crew from 60 Minutes sent emerald samples to European labs for independent appraisal. Bad news: The European lab found a possible epoxy, suggesting the emeralds had been treated in modern times.

That stunned even the Miscoviches. "That was a big setback for me," Scott Miscovich admits. "Everyone is thinking Spanish, and we're doing research on ships." But the epoxy suggested there was no way the emeralds could have come from a colonial-era ship. "The question is: When were they lost in the ocean? [The epoxy] changes your timeline probably to a more contemporary time."

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Kyle Swenson