In 1905, during the height of the Russo-Japanese War, Moscow sent a 5,800-ton warship, the Dmitrii Donskoi, to battle it out in the waters between Japan and what is now South Korea. During this skirmish, dubbed the Battle of Tsushima, the Dmitrii Donskoi sank, leaving no trace beyond rumors that immediately circulated claiming that the vessel had been carrying a vast number of gold coins. Reports from the time of the cruiser’s sinking suggest that the ship contained as many as 14,000 metric tons of these coins to fund Russia’s war effort. If correct, this sum would now be worth approximately $125 billion, an amount that has kept treasure hunters enthralled since the ship’s sinking.
In July of 2018, the South Korean business firm Shinil Group released a statement that they had located the Dmitrii Donskoi and confirmed that the sunken warship housed around 200 tons of gold. Posting underwater photos of the wreckage online, Shinil Group explained they had come across the ship hanging on a slope on the ocean floor, where its armor has been well preserved, allowing representatives from Shinil Group to identify the ship by matching parts of it to historic photos and blueprints. Adding that they planned to consult with South Korean authorities to register the ship before beginning excavation and preservation, Shinil Group also promised to donate 10% of the value of the treasure onboard to tourism developments on the neighboring Ulleungdo Island.
At the time of Shinil Group’s public announcement, an official from the South Korean Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries noted that the firm hadn’t yet applied for or secured salvage rights, which traditionally entails a down payment made out to local maritime police of 10% of the estimated value of the object planned to be recovered. Shinil Group estimated the ship’s worth at around $8.9 billion, boosting their own shares and causing shares to spike in a steel company that Shinil Group executives had invested in before claiming the discovery. In addition, executives from Shinil Group led investors to purchase a cryptocurrency held by a Singaporean company, also named Shinil Group, which was founded by the sibling of one of the South Korean executives, despite his claims that the companies are unrelated. In total, Shinil Group also attracted nearly $7.6 million from investors eager to claim a stake in the golden treasure.
Investigations into the legitimacy of Shinil Group’s claims came immediately after their public announcement. According to an investigation by the South Korean news source Chosun Biz, Shinil Group was founded only one month before their alleged discovery — a far cry from Shinil Group’s claims that they were a successor company to a corporation founded in 1957. Moreover, Chosun Biz reported that Shinil Group was founded with only 100 million South Korean won, about $84,000, nowhere near the 10% of estimated value needed to apply for official salvage rights.
Police raided Shinil Group in response to widespread doubt regarding the legitimacy of their claims, especially after the firm failed to legitimize the photos released in their initial announcement and to provide photos or video footage showing the gold on board the wreckage. On May 1, the Seoul Southern District Court sentenced the vice-chairman of Shinil Group to jail for five years, while the two other executives involved in the scheme received four-year and two-year sentences. So far, there have been no appeals requests on behalf of the scammers. Judge Choi Yeon-mi spoke in court declaring, “Their responsibility for the crime is very heavy, given the method and scale, as it’s a case where they swindled many unspecified people and took huge gains.”
Shinil Group’s scheme mirrors an earlier claim by the South Korean company Dong-ah Construction that declared it would excavate the ship in 2000, a statement that allowed the company’s stock prices to skyrocket. However, their attempts to locate and salvage the ship failed, leading to the company’s eventual bankruptcy.
At the time of this scheme, the head of research at the Central Naval Museum in St. Petersburg, Sergei Klimovsky, released a statement assuring the public that there is “no archival material or scientific evidence to support the idea that there is gold [on board].” He continued, “This question of gold on Russian warships occasionally arises, but there is none, and the Koreans will be wasting their money.”
Despite Klimovsky’s warnings, it seems the riches — whether earned by sunken treasure or through investment fraud — that the Dmitrii Donskoi taunts are too alluring for some to pass up. Regardless, when the next announcement arrives claiming that the battleship’s eternal resting place has been uncovered, the South Korean court will no doubt be waiting with bated breath.