Gold bars, looted 40 years ago from the wreck of the Prince de Conty, have been found after they were auctioned on an American sales site. Three French people have been indicted, the Brest prosecutor’s office in charge of the case announced on Wednesday. The ship of the French East India Company sank off Belle-Ile in 1746.
Gold bars presented, this Wednesday, at the tribunal de grande instance of Brest, the case is not ordinary. Especially since they come from the looting of the wreck of the Prince de Conty.
The ship of the French East India Company, returning from China, sank body and goods, at the southern tip of Belle-Ile-en-Mer, on December 3, 1746. Of the 229 men on board, only 45 survived the shipwreck. The ship is swallowed up by the waters of Brittany, taking with it priceless treasures.
So how and why can these five ingots now end up in the hands of the public prosecutor of Brest, Camille Miansoni?
We have to go back to February 2018, the year in which the DRASSM (Department of Underwater and Underwater Research) informed the Marseille prosecutor of the auction of these ingots in the United States. The case returned, two years later, to the Brest public prosecutor’s office, which has the jurisdiction of specialized coastal jurisdiction.
An investigation is opened, entrusted jointly to the Central Office for the Fight against Trafficking in Cultural Property and to the Interministerial Research Group of Brittany.
The investigations are long and meticulous. Camille Miansoni greets “the scientific, cultural and archaeological watch of the DRASSM thanks to which this file was born”.
The survey identifies “a group of French and American people, linked by family and business relations, to which the seller of the ingots in the United States belongs” indicates the prosecutor of Brest. Among them is also a former professional diver-photographer, “already suspected but exonerated in the case relating to the looting of the Prince of Conty which had been tried in November 1983 by the Lorient court”.
The work of the investigators shines on Switzerland, the United States and Great Britain. It makes it appear that “large cultural establishments of international renown, including the British Museum, have acquired from this identified group ingots and objects belonging to the ship” says Camille Miansoni.
A search “at the home of the main respondent” attests to these transactions.
On May 17, 2022, a couple and a woman were taken into custody. The three French are indicted the next day for “Concealment of cultural property resulting from theft by an organized gang, illegal export of cultural property and money laundering”. They face 15 years in prison.
The official return of the gold bars by the United States took place on May 2 at the French Embassy in Washington, before the courts seized them and then ordered, on May 27, that they be handed over to the DRASS. “This restitution is an important step in the file which is still in progress” notes the public prosecutor of Brest. which reminds us that “other objects are still held abroad while they are intended to reintegrate French heritage collections”. He points in particular to the British Museum, in London, which did not respond to requests for restitution made by the courts.
For its part, the DRASSM does not hide its satisfaction at seeing these precious remains finally return to public collections. “These are very beautiful pieces, observes Olivia Hulot, archaeologist and responsible for the coasts of Brittany and Loire-Atlantique. It is the public who will benefit from them because they will soon be exhibited”.
The Prince de Conty has not yet revealed all these secrets. Excavations directed by the DRASSM are made difficult in this area of Belle-Ile, “particularly hectic” notes Olivia Hulot. The ship lies at 10 or 15 meters depth, “on a cover of pebbles and the remains there are fragmentary”.
The first searches, in the mid-1980s, nevertheless brought to light thousands of fragments of Chinese porcelain from the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, scraps of tea crates and… three small gold ingots each weighing 368 at 375 grams.
They are the ones who made it possible to link the five ingots found in the United States to the ship of the French East India Company. “We did a comparative study, explains Olivia Hulot. They are similar to those we present today”.