Gold making people crazy in search for sunken treasure

Gold pieces from shipwrecks are displayed at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, Florida, on Aug. 2, 2013

By Vernon Silver - Bloomberg

Captain Robert Mayne stands at the wheel as he guides the steel-hulled Aqua Quest from the docks in the Florida Keys, pointing the vessel toward what he’s been assured is a gold-laden shipwreck that may be worth tens of millions of dollars.

Mayne, 60, says experience has taught him such gold hunts can be perilous: inspiring obsession, sending treasure hunters on endless journeys and blinding them to reason.

“Gold makes people crazy,” says Mayne, who in his youth smuggled marijuana, and now has neatly combed, greying hair. “They become lost in their dream.”

Even he finds the pull irresistible. Investors who hold rights to the site southwest of Key West say it may be the resting place of a galleon sunk by a 1622 hurricane.

Mayne has agreed to cover the cost of the excursion in exchange for half of any treasure.

Gold’s draw is a powerful one that drives both dreams and financial markets. It helped create a bubble in global gold prices, which gained more than sevenfold over a 12-year period. After peaking at $1,921.15 an ounce in September 2011, gold fell to as little as $1,180.50 in June.

It closed at $1,281.83 on Nov. 13.

The drop is battering fortunes, from individuals who bought coins through TV offers to billionaires who bet wrong. The gold fund of John Paulson, the New York hedge fund manager, declined 62 percent this year through September.

Yet for treasure hunters, the recent drop hardly makes a dent in their ambitions. Gold prices are still higher than when they began their quests, years or decades ago.

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