A SEARCH for £30 million of sunken Spanish treasure belonging to the Duke of Argyll has been abandoned after the project leader fled without paying contractors.
Matthew French, of The Poop Company, Somerset, signed up specialist diving contractor North West Marine to search for gold reputed to have sunk on a Spanish galleon in Tobermory Bay in 1588.
But with almost half of the two-month contract still to run, Mr French abandoned the dive site on the isle of Mull, just days after failing to make the first payment for the work. The marine specialist boarded a ferry to Oban, leaving the contractor to settle a bill understood to total tens of thousands of pounds.
North West Marine managing director Tony Ratcliffe and company consultant David Wilkie were alerted by staff on Mull that Mr French had left the island and were waiting for him when he got off the ferry in Oban.
Mr Ratcliffe, 47, of Tobermory, said: “He had missed his first payment on the contract. When I met him off the ferry, he was very embarrassed. He kind of indicated that he had some cashflow problems, at which point we shut the job down.”
Mr Ratcliffe, who confirmed he has paid the substantial bills for divers’ wages and goods out of his own pocket, said he was currently “in discussions” with Mr French regarding the money he owes North West Marine.
He said: “Whether we should have dug deeper and longer remains to be seen. We found Spanish artefects and [some were] taken down to London and identified as Spanish and of that era. I think it is very interesting and shows potential.”
Mr Ratcliffe declined to say how much the contract was worth but Mr Wilkie said: “It was a significant amount of money. It’s not just the divers, it’s the equipment – there is a million pounds worth of equipment that has to be maintained.”
Mr French announced at the start of the project that he had secured cash from unnamed private investors to fund the dive. He said he had a contract with the Duke of Argyll, who has legal rights to any treasure found, for the search to go ahead.
A deal had been made where the investors, which did not include the duke, would be rewarded if treasure was found.
Mr Wilkie continued: “We are obviously disappointed that we didn’t find the treasure, disappointed that the contract didn’t go on for eight weeks, disappointed about the financial aspect, but we are still pleased we did it.”
Mr French, speaking from his home in Somerset, said: “We left earlier than anticipated and we are not anticipating any more dives this season.” Asked if the job ended early because of money problems, Mr French declined to comment.
The treasure is reputed to have been on board a Spanish galleon – some believe the Florencia – that sank 426 years ago.
There have been around 60 dives searching for the treasure over the centuries. The Duke of Argyll’s family was granted exclusive rights by ancient Royal Charter to any treasure found. The duke did not wish to comment.