Treasure Quest

For more than a decade, American Robert Graf has combed the waters of a Seychelles island for a multimillion-dollar booty stashed by pirates nearly 300 years ago

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Graf isn't daunted. At his excavation site on Mahé, we scramble over weathered boulders that jut from the beach like giant stone fingers. He points out at least two dozen carvings and symbols etched into the rocks. Each of these markings, Graf takes pains to explain, is related to a comment in La Buse's writings. Later, for four hours back at my hotel, he shows me PowerPoint slides on his laptop, including aerial photographs of the excavation site. One picture, he says, reveals a sequence of seemingly random holes that mirrors a constellation of stars referred to in one of the letters. That's not the only evidence he might be on the right track. Years ago, Reginald Cruise-Wilkins had found a domino with handmade inlays showing a six and a two not far from the place where Graf is now digging. La Buse's papers, it turns out, contain a reference to the number 62.

Today it's thought that La Buse's share of the Cabo heist could be worth $200 million, but Graf says that figure varies depending on who you talk to. He's heard sums as high as $500 million. "But even if it's only $5 million," he says, "that's still a lot of money." Though under Seychelles law, he tells me, half of any earnings must go to the government. Yet time is running out. Graf's excavation permit is due to expire in April 2005, and Cruise-Wilkins is standing by, ready for a third assault. "I know what we have to do, and it will be pretty fast," says Cruise-Wilkins, whose home is just down the road from the excavation site. "I was working on a tight budget, but now I have the funding. Graf was supposed to move out and I was supposed to take over on October 1, but the government's technical adviser visited the site and gave him six more months." Cruise-Wilkins says that his former partner, now rival, is merely stalling and will run out of time before finding the treasure.

As Graf and I stood at the edge of his lagoon after a dive, he insisted that he was closer than ever to a narrow channel that he says will lead him to the vault that La Buse alludes to in his papers. It'll require just ten days of dredging to reach the vault's entrance, he claims. And what if it takes longer?

When I telephone Graf a few weeks after returning to the States, he tells me that the ceiling of the so-called channel has begun to collapse. He'll have to dig out part of the ceiling to prevent a cave-in—a setback that will cost him at least a couple of more months. In the meantime, he'll have to persuade his wife to hold out a bit longer. "She's sick of it," he says. "She wants to go to the States so I can take a 9-to-5 job. But I won't do it. I've got five different letters that point to the same spot. The treasure has been sitting there for 300 years, and I've only got a couple of feet to go."

Later, getting ready to leave the island, I tell Graf that his story is a bit hard to believe. Then again, by now I've learned that to be a treasure hunter—to slog away for years in the heat, grit and grime—takes a certain amount of blind optimism. As he starts to drive off, Graf pokes his head out the car window and shouts: "You'll believe me when the treasure comes out of the ground!" Optimism perhaps—or maybe just pirate fever.


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