French police recover Roman treasure sold by divers

PARIS Wed Oct 27, 2010 2:09pm EDT

PARIS (Reuters Life!) - French police said on Wednesday they had seized a significant portion of an ancient Roman treasure that was discovered more than two decades ago by Corsican divers who became rich by secretly selling it off.

The seizure is the latest chapter in the exploits of a then young Corsican and two friends who spotted gold in shallow waters 25 years ago while diving for sea urchins off the coast of the Mediterranean island.

The three friends enriched themselves by selling the coins and medallions on the black market and later claimed that they had inherited them when the source of their newfound wealth was discovered by the local authorities.

Police did not say on Wednesday from whom they had recovered the latest portion of the treasure, which likely came from an ancient shipwreck. Specialists consider the find to be one of the most important related to ancient coins, dating from the 3rd century AD.

"This submerged treasure, identified as a maritime cultural asset, belongs to the state," France's national police said in a statement, after a long investigation into national and international black markets for antiquities.

One of the original three Corsican friends, Felix Biancamaria, told French daily Liberation in 2005 how the discovery of what he quickly suspected were Roman coins brought him and his fellow divers untold wealth and thrills until the party soured when local police caught wind of their exploits.

Rather than turn the treasure over to authorities as state property, the divers claimed they had inherited it and began selling it to dealers. However the flood of rare Roman coins on the market eventually raised questions among collectors.

"People thought we were part of a gang of armed robbers," Biancamaria said, describing how the three friends would dive all day for treasure and spend their evenings quaffing champagne in nightclubs.

The three men were among eight people tried in 1994 in connection with the case. They were handed prison sentences of between six and 18 months and made to pay fines.

One of the divers, Marc Cotoni, was killed in a shooting in 2004, according to French media.

Five other people were arrested last week in Paris in connection with the case, a judicial source said.

The recently seized coins, together with a prized golden plate, are estimated to have a value of between 1 million and 2 million euros ($1.38 million to $2.76 million), police said.

An investigation is still underway to track down other items from the treasure that remain missing.

(Additional reporting by Thierry Leveque in Paris and Jean-Claude Lanfranchi; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Paul Casciato)

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