(CN) - A federal judge refused to speculate on the provenance of 200 pounds of emeralds two men claim to have found on the ocean floor, aided by a mysterious treasure map.
Jay Miscovich and Steve Elchlepp said they found a handful of green stones after diving 65 feet to the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, 30 miles north of Key West, Fla., in January 2010.
With additional dives, the handful grew to between 100 and 250 pounds of emeralds.
The two men told the Southern District of Florida that they are professional maritime treasure hunters who happened upon the emeralds by studying a map Miscovich bought from an old friend. They said they have no way of contacting the friend, a destitute Pennsylvania handyman who allegedly checks in monthly from a blocked number.
"The court finds the story of Jay's acquisition of the purported treasure map suspicious to say the least, but at the end of the day immaterial to the resolution of title to the [emeralds]," U.S. District Judge James King wrote.
Miscovich and Elchlepp formed JTR Enterprises LLC after making their discovery. They said investors from New York and Washington, D.C., contributed between $500,000 and $1 million for the collection of Colombian emeralds.
In an interview with the CBS program "60 Minutes," Miscovich said "that the stones are worth millions of dollars, and that one particular find was worth 'easily' $100,000."
Miscovich and Elchlepp allegedly scattered the stones across the world in authenticating, gifting and publicizing them. They reassembled the stones in Key West after filing a court claim to gain title to the gems, or a liberal salvage award.
Judge King granted neither on Friday, saying "the facts of this very unusual case" left him with no alternative but to let the purported treasure hunters leave with the stones they brought to the court, after paying litigations costs.
"When all is said and done, there are two options: Jay and Steve legitimately found lost stones on the floor of the gulf, or Jay and Steve placed stones acquired elsewhere on the ocean floor in order to 'find' them and thereby establish an ancient provenance and greatly enhance the value of the stones and the reputation of the men as treasure salvors," King wrote.
JTR published notice of its title action in a Monroe County, Fla., newspaper, producing two claims from entities that purportedly had an interest in the emeralds.
One group of intervenors voluntarily dismissed their claims with prejudice on the eve of trial. The second intervenor, Motivation Inc., also withdrew its claim after determining that the stones did not belong to it.
A Key West jeweler whom Motivation had hired to study the emeralds testified that the stones were worth only $50,000 combined. He described how one of the emeralds crumbled in his hand when he applied pressure, indicating poor-quality, worthless emeralds.
Other expert reports show that some of the emeralds could not have been in the water very long since they were coated with a modern material called epoxy, according to the ruling.
King concluded that the law of salvage does not apply in this case because the stones may not have been lost. Miscovich and Elchlepp also forfeited salvage when they removed the stones and took them to jewelers after the initial discovery, according to the ruling.
"The law of salvage calls for a marine peril," King wrote. "This element may be satisfied by an 'ancient, abandoned shipwreck.' When there is a shipwreck involved, plaintiff can provide documentation of the ship, its cargo, dates, etc. which allows the court to make certain logical assumptions as to the owner of the material (e.g. the king of Spain). Then the court can require the owner to provide a salvage award. In the instant case, however, there is no shipwreck, and no proof that the stones were ever lost in the first place."
King noted that treasure finds have become somewhat commonplace in Key West.
"This case follows discoveries of treasure from the lost Spanish Galleons the Atocha and Santa Margarita, discoveries which captured the imagination of aspiring treasure seekers around the world and which are legendary in the modern salvage industry," King wrote. "The difference between this case and the cases of the Galleons Atocha and Santa Margarita is the striking lack of a shipwreck, or indeed any source which might tell the real story of how the stones came to be resting 65 feet deep on the surface of the ocean floor in January of 2010."
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