Sunday Times E-Edition

SA seeks return of R775m silver hoard

Government awaits outcome of UK case against treasure hunter who salvaged silver bars from World War 2 wreck


For almost 72 years, 2,391 bars of silver lay undisturbed in the hull of a torpedoed ship at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.

Now the South African government is embroiled in a high court battle in the UK with British treasure hunter and former racing driver Ross Hyett over the precious cargo, worth about $43m (R775m) at the time it was salvaged five years ago.

Hyett’s company, Argentum Exploration, recovered the silver from the ocean bed in 2017.

It shipped the silver to Southampton and declared it to the Receiver of Wreck, a UK government agency that, according to its website, ensures “the interests of both salvor and owner are taken into consideration”.

A year later, SA claimed ownership of the silver bars, which the former Union of South Africa bought in 1942 from the Bombay mint in India. The silver was destined for the mint in Pretoria.

The 60t cargo was transported on the British-registered SS Tilawa, which was also carrying 958 people, 732 of them passengers.

The ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine early in the morning of November 23 1942, northwest of the Maldives.

The HMS Birmingham responded to distress calls and took 678 survivors back to the then Bombay. About 280 people drowned.

Hyett’s company secured the services of Advanced Maritime Services in July 2012 to find the wreck, which was located in December 2014.

During the secret salvage operation, which took six months, the recovered silver was reportedly hidden in a basket lowered to the seabed in international waters to avoid it being seized.

Hyett, 67, is a former executive director of the British Racing Drivers’ Club, which owns Silverstone race circuit, and twice completed the 24 Hours of Le Mans race.

Argentum, which has accepted that SA is the owner of the silver, brought a claim in court for an unspecified salvage award. SA, in turn, argued it has immunity from the jurisdiction of the court and asked it to dismiss the Argentum claim.

But in a ruling in the Admiralty Court in December 2020, judge Sir Nigel Teare rejected SA’s argument and ruled that “the ship and cargo were, at the time the cause of action in salvage arose, in use for commercial purposes”.

He stated in his judgment that SA maintained that if it was immune from the jurisdiction of the court, the Receiver of Wreck would be obliged to deliver the silver to SA without any salvage being paid.

However Teare granted SA leave to appeal. The appeal hearings were completed in July and judgment was reserved.

In the appeal hearings, counsel for Argentum, Stephen Hofmeyr QC, said the company had retrieved the silver “at substantial expense and having applied considerable effort”.

“The republic [of SA] does not deny that the silver has been salved or that subject to its two defences, the salvor is in principle entitled to salvage. Instead, the republic is now seeking to get out of the obligation to pay salvage, relying on state immunity.”

Representing SA in the appeal hearings, Christopher Smith QC said Teare had erred in concluding that granting immunity to the Pretoria government “would be surprising” because it had “exposed itself to a liability in salvage by reason of having chosen to have its property carried by sea”.

Smith said the hearing “is not concerned with whether we are liable to pay salvage”, adding: “This hearing is concerned about whether we are susceptible to the jurisdiction of the courts on the claim against the cargo.”

The SA government has retained the London-based law firm Holman Fenwick Willan to represent it in the case.

Justice department spokesperson Chrispin Phiri said the solicitor-general, who is responsible for civil litigation by the state, was looking into the matter.

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