A billion dollar treasure: The answer is waiting off Nantucket


“The Tsar’s Treasure: The Sunken White Star Liner With a Billion Dollar Secret” by Martin Bayerle and G.S. Payne, Barnburner Books, LLC, 2013. Hardcover, 240 pages with text, notes, and index. $28.95. Available August 5 at Bunch of Grapes, Vineyard Haven, at Edgartown Books, and at Island libraries.

Several billion dollars in gold may lie in 270 feet of water about 50 miles south of Nantucket, and it all belongs to Martin Bayerle.

Mr. Bayerle, a lifetime treasure hunter, has unabated recovery rights to the SS Republic, a luxury liner that sank after a collision with another vessel on January 23, 1909. In addition to 742 well-heeled passengers, the Republic was allegedly carrying $1.8 million in Russian and American gold.

Mr. Bayerle, a former Island resident and dive shop operator, has penned an account of his 30-year struggle to find the Republic, assess her cargo, and defend his right to recover the booty, an operation planned for 2014.

He presents a taut, well-researched account of his search and provides some zesty side plots: international political intrigue and cover up involving U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt; Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II; the gnomes of early 20th-century international banking; the Titanic sinking, as well as a couple of our celebrity residents.

Mr. Bayerle will present both his story and his eye-patched, rakish self at the Old Whaling Church on Main Street in Edgartown on Thursday, August 1, at 5:30 pm.

In a telephone interview at his rented Aquinnah retreat this week, the voluble, articulate, and passionate Mr. Bayerle reprised his lifelong fascination with treasure-hunting, beginning at Coney Island in his Brooklyn youth.

“I’ve always been fascinated with sunken treasure,” he said. “When I was a little kid, my Dad gave me a book called ‘Good Old Coney Island.’ The book had a story about a mutiny on a ship that sank in 1835 off Coney Island. Apparently the ship was carrying $45,000 in Mexican silver dollars [More than $1 million today]. I thought ‘I need to learn to scuba-dive,’ so I did.”

That early plunge, so to speak, took him to the Island and some unlikely treasure-hunter way stops, such as West Virginia, where he resided for a time with his former in-laws after his search had depleted his funds, his spirit and, ultimately, a marriage.

“I almost gave up a several times. This find has cost me a lot,” he said on Sunday evening. But if you’re going to be a good treasure-hunter, resilience is a must. Mr. Bayerle spent his Elba years in West Virginia getting a master’s degree in finance, which helped to rekindle the passion and served him well as he pored through miles of documents, following the money trail to the hold of the Republic.

Treasure aside, the story gets interesting here from several perspectives. For example, the U.S. and British governments refused to hold official inquiries and the U.S. government never charted the location of the sunken Republic, which was a normal practice in such events.

Mr. Bayerle believes those non-events were signs of the political times. “Tsar Nicholas was in trouble,” he said. “Russia had just lost the Russo-Japanese War, civil unrest was brewing, the treasury was depleted and he could see Germany was ramping up for what would become World War I.

“I believe one million dollars of that gold cargo was part of a three-million dollar payment tied to a $240 million loan to Russia. I’ve found the paperwork for two of the three million.”

Mr. Bayerle has deduced, despite the lack of paperwork and inquiry, that our government did not want the existence of the loan to Russia made public and ate the loss of $800,000 of its own gold in silence, instead requisitioning an emergency replacement of the funds earmarked for payroll to the U.S. fleet.

“In that sense I can see the cover-up,” he said. “If Russia’s enemies knew how weak she really was, the war may have started sooner, and even more lives might have been lost.”

Mr. Bayerle wonders, though, whether the sinking of the Republic’s sister ship, SS Titanic, three years later, might have had a different outcome if the Republic’s construction flaws had had more attention. “Both ships were built at the same shipyard in Belfast with the same design. They were sister ships, termed ‘practically unsinkable.’ But they both sank, the Titanic at sea and the Republic while under tow back to port,” he said.

“I can see, though, why there was no panic aboard Titanic. The loss of Republic was big news. Everybody knew about it. But over 18 hours, all the passengers were safely off-loaded. Only three of the 1,742 passengers died. They died at the point of collision with the ramming ship,” he said.

Sound like a movie or a TV series? Stay tuned. While most treasure-hunters are better at finding than managing money, Mr. Bayerle has a plan. “We are going to finance the recovery through media revenues rather than an investment group,” he says, noting that his son Grant, an attorney, is developing subsequent books on the find and the planned treasure recovery. “We are beginning to research film possibilities and relationships,” Grant said.

On Thursday, Mr. Bayerle will revisit the Whaling Church, a full circle of sorts. “I like that the event is at the Whaling Church,” he said. “It’s where the kids were baptized.

Presentation with Martin Bayerle, Thursday, Aug. 1, 5:30 pm, Old Whaling Church, Edgartown. Books available for sale. For more information, visit thetsarstreasure.com.