Saturday, August 01, 2009

Making Money With Treasure Hunting

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KEY WEST (Fortune Small Business) -- The air tastes warm and salty, and the midmorning sun glints off the turquoise waves that sway the Dare.

Thirty feet below the deck of this 83-foot salvage ship, a half-dozen scuba divers are scouring the remains of a 400-year-old Spanish galleon, which is laden with emeralds, pearls, silver and gold. I lean over the side and watch a diver emerge from the depths, his arm held high. He clutches what looks like a spiky black rock. He spits out his regulator and shouts, "Yeah!" The divers on the boat break into cheers. They instantly recognize the object he's holding as a mass of oxidized silver coins -- perhaps 50 all together -- that could be worth as much as $500,000.

Aboard the Dare, divers pass around the rock. One of them lifts the black mound to his nose and sniffs deeply. "Smell it," he tells me. "It smells like silver." The scent takes me back to my grandmother's kitchen and the aroma of her polished flatware.

These divers have been on this ship for more than a week, making four or five daily searches on an expedition that, until today, has been largely a bust. "This makes our whole trip worthwhile," says Josh Fisher-Abt, a 28-year-old diver whose grandfather created Mel Fisher's Treasures, the small outfit that organized this trip.

The family-owned business runs treasure exploration and recovery operations year-round in the warm tropical waters surrounding Key West. Over the past two decades, Mel Fisher's Treasures has grossed as much as $14 million in one year from the booty it has found. Seven of the past 10 years have not been profitable, however, so to ensure cash flow the firm raises $2.8 million a year from individual investors, who currently number about 200. Buying shares worth $10,000 to $80,000, the investors -- divers, small business owners, history buffs -- become part owners of Fisher's treasure-hunting operation and get paid in silver coins, gold chains, pearls and other spoils.

"This is about history," says Dave Pfent, 42, a lean, tan dentist who runs his own practice in Fort Myers, Fla. Pfent has been an investor in the company for two years at the $10,000 level and has made a dozen dives to various shipwreck sites that the company is excavating. But Pfent admits to other incentives too: He and his wife, Elizabeth, also a dentist, once had the thrill of finding emeralds (although they weren't worth much).

"Right now, I think it's better to invest in something you can hold, not something on paper," he says.

Mel Fisher, who died in 1998, was an early scuba aficionado and dive instructor. In 1953 he opened the first dive shop in the United States, in Redondo Beach, Calif. Fisher spent 16 years hunting for the Nuestra Seсora de Atocha, a Spanish galleon that disappeared in 1622 en route from Cuba to Spain. He moved to Key West to coordinate the search and hired researchers to comb through marine archives in Seville.

Although Fisher found the first artifact from the ship in 1971, it wasn't until July 20, 1985, that his divers finally found the main wreck 35 miles offshore, along with its sister ship, the Santa Margarita. Both vessels were loaded with treasure, about half of which the Fishers have since recovered.

"He went bankrupt five times before he hit it," says Sean Fisher, 31, another of Mel's grandsons, who is currently taking over business operations from his dad, Kim, 53.

After the initial find, the Fishers spent years mired in a legal battle with the state of Florida, which also laid claim to the wreck. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the Fishers won a 5-to-2 decision in 1982. On the day of the high court's ruling, a state inspector was on the family's salvage ship, to keep track of any treasure in case Florida won. The Fishers were all too happy to see the inspector go.

"They radioed the news that a boat was coming to pick him up," says Kim, who, like most of the company's employees, wears a casual short-sleeve shirt, shorts, flip-flops and a weighty silver Spanish coin around his neck. "We waited until we could see the boat on the horizon, and then we tossed him overboard."

The next day we embark in a small speedboat for an hour-long ride on gently rolling seas. On arrival at the Dare, the crew transfers our bulky dive bags to the larger boat. The ship's underwater fans have just finished clearing some of the sand that covers the coral bedrock below, creating a hole about 25 feet wide and 20 feet deep. That's where we're headed.

The noon sun shines bright and hard overhead, as six investors and I stand on the rocking deck, pulling on our lightweight wet suits. We hook up our tanks, check the air gauges and secure our masks and fins. Standing on the edge of the deck, I put my hand up to hold my mask and regulator and step overboard. I fall 10 feet and splash into the foot-high waves.

At first the water is silty. We have only a few feet of visibility as we float 30 feet down to the ghostly white bedrock. The visibility quickly clears to about 20 feet, and I can see my fellow divers crawling around on the ocean floor.

We peer into holes and overturn large coral rocks to check underneath. Pfent is digging away in the sand with a large clamshell. Two company divers scan the coral and sandbanks around the hole with metal detectors. I feel a tug on my fin and turn around; Fisher-Abt is motioning for me to follow him. He points to a small rock a few feet away. I pick it up and stifle the urge to squeal; underneath is a pottery shard from the Atocha.

Divers frequently find these remnants of olive jars, which were used to store oil and food in the ship's galley. My little brown triangle is about three inches across and speckled with a few white barnacles -- my first find. I unzip the neck of my wet suit and tuck the artifact inside for safekeeping.

After 20 minutes the divemaster sounds an electronic signal, and we all ascend to the aluminum ladder on the side of the Dare. On deck I hand over my pottery shard to be catalogued in the treasure log, as does Pfent. As an investor, he can request the shard he found as part of his next dividend. "I'll display it," he says with a grin, "and have a great story to tell."
Booty time

That afternoon, back on dry land, investors are waiting to receive their annual dividends at Fisher headquarters. Expectations are running high as Sylvia Van Dyke and Margaret Freeburg, who split a $10,000 share, enter the office of Shawn Cowles, the company's investment-relations manager. They sit at a large desk as the energetic Cowles swivels his computer monitor around so they can see the screen and launches into an explanation of the year's salvage efforts.

"The news isn't good," he says.

In 2008 divers found only $980,000 worth of treasure. Fortunately for Van Dyke and Freeburg, Cowles explains, the Fishers guarantee their investment plus a 10% return; the two women will receive about $11,000 worth of treasure directly from the company vault. Their payment comes in the form of two coins. The first is a worn silver piece worth approximately $600. But Van Dyke and Freeburg perk up as Cowles pulls out the second coin: a rare silver Star of Lima worth $9,500. He explains that these coins were minted in Peru on Christmas Day 1588, and are famed for their beauty and fine detail. The women lean in, spellbound.

"I just don't know how we're going to cut this coin in half," jokes Van Dyke, 56, who works in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Washington, D.C. She tells me later that they plan to set the coin on a necklace and then probably take turns wearing it. They'll also reinvest in the coming year, as do 70% of the company's backers.

After a week of diving and distributing loot, the Fishers and their crew gear up for their annual beachside costume party. This year's theme is pearls. The festivities start at 6:30 p.m. at Casa Marina, a posh Mediterranean-style resort. As the sun sets over the glassy ocean, partygoers dive into cocktails and sway to Jimmy Buffett covers played by a local band.

About two-thirds of the 440 revelers use the pearl motif as an excuse to dress in white and flash major bling. The more creative guests model elaborate costumes of their own design. One couple dress up as a pair of pearl rings; others come as jellyfish, oysters and Neptunes. Dave and Elizabeth Pfent make a dapper pair of pirates. Van Dyke's green toenails match her fitted mermaid costume. Sean Fisher and the rest of his family schmooze and pose for photos with investors.

"Yeah, running a company is stressful," Sean says. Then he stops and smiles as he looks out at the ocean. "But I could be in Indiana selling insurance," he adds. "Instead I'm in Key West selling treasure."

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