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Alexandre Korganoff (1922-2004) a Frenchman of Russian extraction contacts me by telephone.  (He was  later the author of The Phantom Of Scapa Flow Ian Allan Ltd., 1974.)  He says that he's trying to raise capital to finance an expedition to the Caribbean. He says that he has seen me on TV regarding our attempts to secure rights to dive inthe West of Ireland. He explains that he knows the spot where the wreck of a Spanish Galleeon named  Nuestra Senora de  la Conception lies  on  a  coral reef.  He asks me to fly over to Paris to see him.

After discussions with Colin and the two McCormack brothers, I fly to Orly Airport  in Paris, where Frenchman Alexandre Korganoff is waiting for me. He's casually dressed, with a rather dishevelled, shifty,  nervy, mad-professor look about him. He speaks good English. We drive is his old beaten-up car to the seedy but attractively degenerate Montmartre area of the city, shuffling around a corner at any moment. The car is filled with clouds of blue exhaust fumes and the smoke from those short, wide, unfiltered Gauloise cigarettes, made with dark tobaccos from Syria and Turkey which give off a strong and distinctive smell.  He sucks upon them and coughs incessantly as (to much honking of car horns)  we career through the winding streets in my host's battered Citroen

From the early 19th century until the migration in the 1920s to Montparnasse, Montmartre was the major art colony of Paris. Now, I notice that most sections are highly commercialised for the tourist trade; other areas however, are unselfconsciously picturesque. Montmartre is known for its nightclubs and entertainment. I look out for the Moulin Rouge but don't see it. We turn into a mean street with the remains of fruit and vegetables lying on the pavements. Obviously there has been a street-market situated here at some time earlier in the day.

The car shudders to a halt outside a large, sunblistered door in the Rue Caatellane. We enter the foyer where a doddery concierge is nodding over her knitting. She doesn't glance up as Korganoff raps on the door of a ground-level flat. His wife, a thin, edgy looking woman, opens the door. She's quite a fetching tall blonde woman. It later transpires that she's the daughter of the Nazi Admiral Raeder. I'm very surprised immediately we step inside, for in the entrance hall is large glass display case containing tailor's dummies dressed in resplendent braided uniforms. korganoff tells me that the uniforms are those of the illustrious Russian Preobrazhensky Guards regiment who formed the Czar's personal bodyguard., and had belonged to his Father. He goes on to say that his Father Segei was the lawyer who had defended Prince Yousipoff who murdered Rasputin.

We take our seats at the dining table, where the Frenchman's two small sons are already sitting. I am utterly amazed to be addressed in good English by the eight year old Gregory, who speaks German to his mother, Russian to his Father, and French to the maid who suddenly appears from the kitchen.

Over the meal, my host tells me that he is a great rival of Jacque Costeau, and that he was at Naval Training College with him when the Germans marched into France. The Germans had allowed Costeau to remain at college, where he later went on to invent the so-called aqualung. korganoff however, was forced to leave the college because of his Russian émigré background. He then tells me the story of the Spanish galleon, the Nuestra Senora de la Conception. She'd hit a notorious coral reef called the Silver Shoals about sixty nautical miles north West of Puerto Rico in 1647. She'd been part of the great Spanish treasure fleet which made a annual trip back to Spain loaded with gold plundered from the South American territories annexed by the Spanish crown. The great English sea captain John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, had managed to retrieve much gold and silver from the upper decks using native divers.

The diving had come to an abrupt end when terrified divers claimed to have seen a golden statue of the Madonna come to life. In spite of death threats, the natives refused to visit the wreck again. korganoff explains that an American Air Force pilot friend of his, an arctic explorer named Krause, [who had a place named after him in that white wilderness, known as Krause Point,] had done a photo-symetrical survey of the Silver Shoals which had located the wreck site.

He went on to say that the Dominican playboy, Porfiro Rubirosa, who was married to the film star Ava Gardner at the time, had mounted an expedition at his own expense. Seemingly, Rubirosa had a fleet of eight fishing vessels based at Marseilles. The boats were named after the musical scale. Doh, Rae, Me, Fah, Soh, Lah, Tee, Doh.

According to Alexandre Korganoff, the fishing boat Rae was chosen to sail over to Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic with her French crew. They also used native divers, who with their large lung-capacity are capable of staying below for long periods. Again, the Golden Madonna enters the tale. The natives claimed to have seen her ghostly apparition and refused to continue diving. The vessel returned to Puerto Plata, where the captain committed suicide by hanging himself with the cord used to operate the boat's siren. Unfortunately he did the deed in the middle of the night and woke up half the town! Rubirosa himself was killed in a car crash in Paris soon afterwards. My host says that he's arranged for a private screening of a film, which he and Krause had made on a previous visit to the wreck site. The next day, Korganoff takes me in his car to a cinema in the Champs Elysées. There, sitting alone in the vast empty cinema, we view a film shot with underwater cameras, which purports to show shots of the Nuestra Señora de la Conception. There is nothing on camera, which actually identifies the wreck as the boat, in question. I promise Korganoff that I will try to interest my British colleagues in the venture and fly back home.

                                         TREASURE HUNTERS CLUB OF GREAT BRITAIN.

By this time, we've formed a club called the Treasure Hunters Club of Great Britain. I'm elected chairman and a chemist friend of ours called Ben Gould, who was also a diving instructor, is chosen as the treasurer. Our idea is that we will ask members of the public to subscribe £10 each for a share, and this money will be used to finance the expedition. To this end, I place an advert in The Liverpool Echo announcing a public meeting on board my floating night-club, Landfall. In the advert, I mention that the sunken gold deposits are said by Korganoff to be worth ten million pounds, and that each subscriber of £10 will receive a share of the prize should we be successful in raising the treasure.

The meeting takes place on board the Clubship Landfall at 8pm on Tuesday 2 December 1969. Korganoff promises to fly to Liverpool for the meeting, but he does not show up. I chair the meeting, which goes very well. We manage to form a committee and we even take about 25 deposits from interested people. I may mention that there are two men in the audience who are obviously police from the fraud squad, giving us the once over and checking out that it's not all a big scam.

I telephone Korganoff and bellyache bitterly about his non-arrival at our meeting. He makes some lame excuses, but I manage to make another date for him to come and speak to our Treasure Hunters Club committee.

A week later I meet Korganoff at Manchester airport. With him is a shady looking Maltese man whose name I forget. He hands me his card on which is written his company 'Underwater Developments Ltd', Valetta, Malta. I don't know why, but I'm suspicious of this man, and when we get back to the Landfall, I make an excuse and go to the office. I telephone The Registrar of Companies at Companies House in London, and ask them if they'd such a company registered in that name.

At that time, Maltese companies are recorded in London, because of Malta being a member of the British Commonwealth. They come back to the telephone with the answer. 'No,' says the voice, 'Underwater Developments isn't a bone fide company'. We have the meeting that evening in the Nelson Room. Korganoff repeats the story of La Nuestra Senora de la Conception. He outlines the nature of the expedition and what kind of salvage vessel and equipment will be required. Powerful pumps are required to 'hoover' the fragments of broken coral - he needs explosives etc. He is to be the expedition leader, and the money is to be deposited in a Bahamian bank, with him as the sole authorised signatory for withdrawals. I smell a rat, and call a break in the proceedings.

I then confer with my colleagues and tell them about the non-existence of the Maltese company. I decide that we are being drawn into a very murky set-up, and when we return to the meeting, I stand up and said so. I then resign as Chairman. The meeting breaks up in disorder. That is the end of the La Nuestra Senora de la Conception as far as we are concerned. I see to it that the £10 deposits are returned to the people whom had paiid.

The location of the wreck was lost again until the late 1970s, when researcher and author Peter Earle found the log of one of Phips' ships in an English archive. This discovery, along with a new type of magnetometer (a device used to detect metallic objects), enabled American salvager Burt Webber to relocate the wreck in 1978 and recover another fortune.

Convinced that more riches remained, Tracy Bowden, author of the July 1996 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC article "Gleaning Treasure From the Silver Bank," negotiated an agreement with the government of the Dominican Republic and went on to salvage still more treasure during the 1990s.


Further Reading

Devils Gold by Ted Falcon-Barker, Nautical Publishing Company, 1969.

La Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion struck the Los Abrojos reef, 60 miles north of Haiti after being severely damaged in a hurricane in 1659. Her cargo: one hundred tons of silver and gold coin and bullion.

A survivor of wreck passed the location of the Concepcion's resting place to an Englishman named William Phips.

Phips, sponsored by King Charles II, set off to locate the wreck of the Concepcion in 1683. Arriving at Los Abrojos reef he realised that he wasn't the only person searching for treasure, other ships were already there.

Realising that his small ship and crew would be unable to fight off the other ships that had gathered in search of the treasure, Phips returned to England to try and secure a heavily armed war ship to escort him back to the Los Abrojos reef. He found several wealthy backers including the Duke of Albemarle who provided him with a total of three ships, two of which were heavily armed.

The three ships reached Haiti in 1686. One of the ships, the Henry, was sent to the search area immediately, the others stayed behind at Porto Plata. On the first day of the renewed search at the Los Abrojos reef, a member of the diving team paddling a canoe over the site spotted a strange looking sea plant amongst the coral below him, diving down to retrieve it, he saw several bronze canon. Search operations ended and salvage began.

In the days that followed the divers recovered thousands of silver coins and a number of silver bars.

The Henry returned to Porto Plata with the treasure and Phips ordered all three ships to the site to begin full scale salvage of the Concepcion's precious cargo.

When Phips eventually returned to England, he carrying treasure worth £300,000. That's £300,000 in the money of 1687, it would be countless millions today. The bulk of the Concepcion's treasure was still on the sea bed, Phips had only managed to recover one third of the Concepcion's registered cargo.

Phip's primitive tools were not up to the challenge of cutting through the growth of coral that had covered the wreck site. Try as he might, he couldn't break into the Concepcion's Plate Room - where the vast majority of the silver was stored.

Ted Falcon-Barker

In 1967, Ted Falcon-Barker, an Australian treasure hunter and two companions arrived at the site to try their luck at locating the wreck and breaking into the Plate Room with modern explosives. They found 96 gold gold coins (all the coins were from the reign of Ferdinand & Elizabeth 1497-1516), a solid gold crucifix and a life sized solid gold finger, possibly from a statue the Concepcion was believed to be carrying.

The treasure hunt ultimately ended in disaster. Whilst on route to Port Royal for repairs to their boat and to pick up supplies, the crew dropped anchor over night in a small bay on the coast of Haiti where they were boarded by thieves. One of the crew, Hugh MacDonald, received a stab wound that would later prove fatal.

Falcon-Barker shot one of the boarders with a harpoon gun before firing on the rest of the would be pirates with the shotgun he had onboard, but it was too late for poor Hugh, the damage was already done, the knife had punctured his lung and so far from proper medical care he didn't stand a chance.

Falcon-Barker wrote a book about his attempts at salvaging the treasure of the Concepcion (Devils Gold, Nautical Publishing Company, 1969) which is well worth getting, if you can find it.