Did a conspiracy rob treasure hunters of millions of $?

The French fleur-de-lis symbol engraved on a 16th-century bronze cannon discovered in a shipwreck off the coast of Cape Canaveral, in Florida

By Tom Metcalfe - Live Science

A maritime salvage company of "treasure hunters" discovered some of the United States' oldest European artifacts in shipwrecks near Cape Canaveral in 2016.

Now, the finders are suing the state of Florida for millions of dollars in damages, alleging a conspiracy of sorts between the governments of France and Florida to deprive the company of its share of the spoils.

Global Marine Exploration (GME) alleges that some Florida state officials misused their knowledge of the location of the artifacts — including several 16th century cannons, estimated to be worth $1 million each — and colluded with France to help that nation take control of the shipwreck sites and artifacts.

Between May and June of 2016, GME's divers discovered the cannons and other debris from three colonial-era shipwrecks buried beneath a few feet of sand on the shallow. 

The company was operating using six underwater-exploration permits for the Cape Canaveral area that the state of Florida had approved. But after the company reported its find to state officials, the shipwreck sites and artifacts became the subject of a legal dispute between GME and the nation of France, which was supported in its legal claim by the state of Florida.

Earlier this year, a judge in a U.S. federal district court ruled that the shipwrecks and any artifacts they contained belonged to France, because the ships had been part of the expeditions to Florida in 1562 and 1565, which were funded by the French government of the day and led by the explorer Jean Ribault. GME's research suggests that the ships were Spanish, not French, and that GME would have been able to prove the ships were Spanish if the state of Florida had issued underwater-recovery permits to let GME recover some of the artifacts for identification.

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