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UK salvor loses out after silver-wreck ruling

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The doomed Tilawa silver wreck (Tilawa Foundation)
The doomed Tilawa (Tilawa Foundation)
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The UK Supreme Court has overturned a previous ruling and upheld South Africa’s claim to ownership without payment of £34 million-worth of silver bullion from a deep WW2 shipwreck recovered without its instructions by a British ocean salvage company. 

The British India Steam Navigation Company's Tilawa is said to have been the only passenger/cargo liner to be attacked in the Indian Ocean during the war. 

She was struck by two torpedoes from the Japanese submarine I-29 on 23 November, 1942 near Seychelles, while on her way from what is now Mumbai to Durban.

The sinking led to the deaths of 280 of the 958 mainly Indian passengers and crew onboard – as well as the loss of 2,364 silver bars that had been purchased by South Africa for minting coins. 

The ship had also been carrying 5,900 tons of other cargo. HMS Birmingham rescued most of the survivors the following day.

Secret silver salvage

In 2014 the Tilawa was located and identified following an 18-month search by Advanced Maritime Services. The company had been engaged by Argentum Exploration, a British salvor run by ex-racing driver Ross Hyett and majority owned by hedge-fund dealer Paul Marshall.

Marshall was a leading investor in GB News when it launched in 2021, but recently stepped down from its board to enable him to launch a bid for the Telegraph.

In 2017 Argentum was able to deploy specialist salvage craft to recover the cargo from a depth of 2.5km over a period of six months in secret and bring it to the UK, where it was declared to the Receiver of Wreck

Argentum then argued in court that under maritime law it was owed payment as salvor of the silver – even though South Africa had never asked the company to recover the bullion on its behalf. South Africa had also argued that a foreign state’s court had no power to rule on the claim.

Legal arguments

The legal arguments hinged on whether the silver cargo was considered to be “in use or intended for use for commercial purposes” when the Tilawa sank. The UK Supreme Court initially found in favour of Argentum Exploration, ruling that the silver had been intended for commercial purposes. 

South Africa objected to this decision in its own Court of Appeal but this was overturned. The state then filed its own appeal against the ruling of the UK Supreme Court, which has now decided unanimously that while the Tilawa itself was being used for commercial purposes, planning to mint the silver did not count as a commercial purpose. 

“Cargo sitting in the hold of a ship is not being used for any purpose, commercial or otherwise,” it stated – leaving South Africa immune from Argentum’s claim to have any rights for payment for salvaging the silver.

Also read: €300 million of art treasures still inside Lusitania, Artefacts seized as Cypriot officials clash with salvagers over ancient shipwreck, Pre-World War One battleship HMS Montagu granted protection

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