In 1905, at the height of the Russo-Japanese War, a Russian armored cruiser sunk off the coast of Ulleungdo, a South Korean island. For years, rumors have swirled that the Dmitrii Donskoi, as the ill-fated ship was known, had been carrying a huge trove of gold bars and coins when it went down. A South Korean company announced this week that it had discovered the wreck of the Dmitrii Donskoi, and speculated that treasures worth $132 billion are still inside the ship. But as the Associated Press reports, historians and financial experts are casting major doubts on these claims.
Shinil Group, a Seoul-based company that was founded just last month, has released photos and video footage of the wreckage, along with the coordinates of the ship’s location. The images show markings on the stern of the boat that, the company claims, spell out the ship’s name in Russian. According to a statement by Shinil, divers could also make out cannons, long-distance guns, anchors, three masts, armor and wooden decks.
“One-third of the stern is bombarded and the hull is severely damaged,” the statement reads. “However, the upper deck of the wooden hull is almost untouched. The armor on the side of the hull is also well preserved, while the anchors, guns and machine guns remain in place.”
Shinil maintains that the ship holds at least 200 tons of gold worth 150 trillion won (around $132 billion); the company said it plans to release evidence next week supporting its assertion, Josh Smith of Reuters reports. Shinil also asserts in its statement that it is the “only entity in the world who discovered Donskoi.”
Following the announcement, however, all of these claims were quickly called into question. For one thing, as the AP notes, the company’s estimation of the ship’s treasures “appears to be a huge overvaluation.” The Bank of Korea’s 104 tons of gold reserves have been valued at around $4.8 billion, making it unlikely that 200 tons of gold would be worth $132 billion. It is also far from certain that the Donskoi would have—or could have— carried such a huge hoard.
According to Julian Ryall and Marnie Gill of the Telegraph, the ship was launched in St. Petersburg in 1883. When the Russo-Japanese War broke out, the Donskoi was dispatched to Imperial Russia’s Second Pacific Squadron to bolster Russian fleets that had been hit hard in battle. The ship survived the 1905 Battle of Tsushima, a decisive naval loss for Russia, but was intercepted on its way to the Russian port of Vladivostok.
Sixty of the Donskoi’s crew members were killed, another 120 injured. The captain anchored off Ulleungdo Island and ordered his men to disembark. The next day, the ship was deliberately sunk—reportedly with a trove of gold still packed into its hold to prevent the Japanese from seizing the treasures. The Donskoi’s crew members were subsequently taken prisoner by Japanese landing parties.
Despite longstanding rumors about the ship’s precious cargo, Russian researchers have said it is unlikely that the Donskoi ever carried tons of gold into battle. Trains would have been a much safer, and therefore more probable, mode of transportation. And it is doubtful that the Donskoi—which was packed with 1, 600 tons of coal, 500 sailors, and more than 12 pieces of artillery—would have had room for so much gold.
Even Shinil’s claim to be the “only entity in the world who discovered Donskoi” has been called into question. The government-run Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology (KIOST) told South Korean media that it had successfully located the wreckage in 2003. And according to the AP, another Korean company made similar claims about the Donskoi in the past—and was subsequently accused of lying to raise its stock prices and avoid bankruptcy.
Jeil Steel, a company in which Shinil recently acquired shares, saw a surge in its stock prices after Shinil announced that it had located the sunken treasure. Shinil has said that it hopes to raise the Donskoi, and any treasure within it, from the bottom of the sea within a few months. But South Korean officials are warning investors to exercise caution.
“Investors should beware,” an anonymous official with South Korea’s financial supervisory service tells the AP, “because it’s uncertain whether the ship is salvageable and whether Shinil would be able to gain ownership of the assets even if it gets permission to raise it.”