French side with diver seeking salvage rights to 17th-century vessel

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Posted by on May 12, 2005 at 06:43:03:

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) -- More than 300 years after the Griffin vanished, a Great Lakes treasure hunter says the government of France supports his bid to obtain salvage rights to the first European trade ship on Lake Michigan.

Steve Libert of Virginia filed a federal lawsuit last summer laying claim to the sunken ship. The Griffin, built in North America by French explorer Robert de La Salle, disappeared on its maiden voyage in 1679.

The Griffin was the first European decked ship to sail the upper Great Lakes and is considered a prize among shipwreck hunters. Fearing the site could be looted, Libert's company, Great Lakes Exploration LLC, says only that the wreck is in Michigan waters of Green Bay between Escanaba and the St. Martin Islands.

Michigan claims ownership of historic shipwrecks under the Abandoned Shipwreck Act. But Richard Robol, an attorney for Great Lakes Exploration, said the French government could assert ownership rights to the Griffin.

"If it's a French vessel, the French have a right to determine the recovery. France wants us to go forward," Robol told U.S. Chief District Judge Robert Holmes Bell in Grand Rapids on Tuesday.

Robol presented an e-mail from the U.S. State Department that quoted a French diplomat as saying there was an "unequivocal naval connection" between de La Salle and King Louis XIV.

"Everything points to the Griffin, based on the location and markings," he said. "If it isn't, France isn't interested. My client isn't interested."

Bell, however, did not rule on Great Lakes Exploration's request to become custodian of the site. He told Robol to provide state researchers with more details within two weeks. The state then will check the site and report back in July, according to a Wednesday report in The Grand Rapids Press.

La Salle's other ship, La Belle, was discovered off the Texas coast about a decade ago. With approval from France, state archaeologists recovered nearly 1 million artifacts ranging from human bones to muskets.

The Griffin was believed to have carried furs.

"The only riches on it would be riches of the mind," Robol said outside court. "I don't believe anyone believes there's treasure."

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