Marx Is the Name, Treasure Is the Game

He’s been tagged “plunderer”, “scoundrel”, “swindler”, but also “the most important explorer of our times” with “enormous experience” and “fabulous” knowledge” of Spain's colonial period.

Bob Marx, the world’s most successful treasure hunter, is a man marine archaeologists love to hate: a reason in his own right, they would say, for a convention protecting underwater heritage.

Marx, 60, has spent 40 years scouring the ocean bottoms for the treasure galleons that sailed between the New World and the Old and the trading vessels that brought spices from Asia to Europe as well as great cargoes of bullion and porcelain.

"I have discovered more wrecks and raised more treasure than anybody else", he boasts. Few would contest this. By his own count he has "looked at" some 2,500 wrecks scattered around the globe. He has worked in 62 countries, often as a consultant for the government and national or maritime museums, and was among the first to use high technology on wrecks. Locked away in a cabin in remote Saskatchewan (Canada), he taught himself old Spanish so that he could study the Spanish maritime archives detailing the routes taken by the treasure fleets and the cargoes they carried. The Spanish government decorated him in the 60s after he reconstructed Columbus’ caravel, the Niña II, and duplicated the 1492 voyage from Spain to San Salvador.

A Detail

A born adventurer driven by a boyhood passion for shipwrecks and nautical history, his CV reads like an Indiana Jones movie script. It lacks however, any formal qualification in archaelogy. Marx considers this an irrelevant detail and argues that his vast experience more than makes up for the lack of any diploma.

"When I started there was no such thing as marine archaeology," he says defiantly. "And I worked out pretty quickly that if I wanted to pursue my obsession with shipwrecks and nautical history, I had to find the means to fund such ventures. Working a wreck can cost between $30,000 and $40,000 a day. That means private investors who expect a return for their money, and that means a share of the goodies."

He denies allegations of often having taken a larger share of these "goodies" than was his due. "The normal split is 75% for us and 25% for the government in whose waters we work. The country also gets all unique objects found." At the same time he staunchly defends his methods of excavation and recovery for which he is regularly attacked by the specialists.

"Everybody in this game works with archaeologists these days and they tell us how things should be done. And the technology we use allows for a precision previously unheard of. We can do three dimensional grids of a site, for example, pinpointing exact locations of objects - although this is obviously much more difficult when wrecks are spread over several kilometres as is often the case."

Motivated, he says, more by the excitment of discovery and the knowledge gained than by the treasure ("I’m a millionaire, I don’t need the money"), he has consistantly argued for the protection of underwater cultural heritage. A long list of articles with titles such as "Shipwrecks should belong to the state so valuable data will be preserved", "Why Cádiz must be saved", "The Disappearing Underwater Heritage", admirably present the case for safeguarding wrecks and other sites such as the sunken city of Port Royal in Jamaica (where Marx served as director of exacavation for the government in Kingston). He argued, alongside of the "grand-father" of underwater archaeology, George Bass, and explorer-technologist Robert Ballard, who worked on the Titanic, for the rewriting of American shipwreck laws to ensure their protection from treasure hunters. "The concept of ‘finders keepers’ should never apply to shipwrecks or anything old which one might find under the sea. It has always been my belief that shipwrecks and other underwater finds belong to all of mankind..." he told the US subcommittee on oceanography during a review of America’s abandoned shipwreck act in October 1985. A bluff to gain recognition from the archaeological community or win favour (and excavation permits) with governments, claim his critics. His determination to get his own way, his contempt of red-tape and "nationalism", the way he uses friends in high places to gain influence (and change laws, as happened in the Azores) is renowned to the point where many governments have now closed their doors to him.

Nonetheless he makes a valid point when he suggests that the archaeological community should work more closely, with and not only better inform people like himself who have access to the technology and finance, but also and especially with sports divers or even fishermen who often don’t think twice before lifting a curious object from the seabed.

Just how far he is prepared to go though to adapt his methods of work (both on the diplomatic front and underwater), remains to be seen. When asked what he thought about a convention that basically aimed at curtailing his activities, he gave a surprised laugh, paused for a few seconds and then replied most sincerely "but I work as an archaeologist, why should it affect me?"

by Sue Williams

Published in UNESCO Sources, February 1997

Published on Nordic Underwater Archaeology, Apr '99, by permission from UNESCO

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