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LONDON (Reuters Life!) - U.S. salvage teams said on Monday they had found the wreck of a British naval ship which sank in 1744 and may still be laden with a cargo of gold coins now worth over a billion dollars.
Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc said it had discovered the remains of the HMS Victory, the pride of the British fleet before it was lost in a storm with more than 900 crew aboard somewhere in the Channel between England and France.
The man-of-war, which took its complement of over 110 bronze cannons to a watery grave, was the predecessor to the ship commanded by Admiral Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
"Finding this shipwreck has solved one of the greatest shipwreck mysteries in history," said Gregg Stemm, Odyssey's chief executive officer.
"There is some very strong evidence that there are some valuables on this wreck which may create a bit of a free for all and we just hope we will be able to keep the site hidden," Stemm told a press conference in London.
He said Odyssey had kept the find secret for nine months while it negotiated with the British government over salvage rights and how to proceed in examining the site.
"Fortunately, this shipwreck is not in waters claimed by any other country, so we do not expect any interference in further exploration of the site," Stemm said.
Odyssey discovered the site nearly 100 km (62 miles) from where the ship was believed to have been wrecked on a reef near the Channel Islands. It has not disclosed a more precise location.
Salvors at Odyssey said that historical documents show the Victory was carrying gold coins weighing some four tonnes when she went down, worth some 400,000 pounds at the time.
They said the current value of the bullion today alone could be more than $125 million, while the real value for such ancient coins could be more than $1 billion dollars.
In 2007, the same firm announced it had salvaged 17 tonnes of gold and silver coins worth $500 million from the wreck of a ship in the North Atlantic, which prompted the Spanish government to say the hoard belongs to Spain and take legal action to recover the treasure.
Working closely with the Britain's Ministry of Defense, the firm has completed an archaeological pre-disturbance survey of the site, and recovered two bronze cannon to confirm the identity of the wreck.
Reporting by Stefano Ambrogi; editing by Paul Casciato