Who would have thought that a sea urchin with friends in the Gulf of Lava would lead to the discovery of one of the treasures of the Roman Empire. However, one day in September 1985, while fishing for sea urchins in the town of Alata, near Ajaccio, Félix Biancamaria and his friend Marc Cotoni came face to face with pieces of inestimable value. Minted with the effigy of ancient emperors, this gold comes from the booty of a ship which, in the 3rd century, carried on board part of the wealth of one of the greatest civilizations of our era. Seventeen thousand years later, the mystery surrounding its discovery is still unsolved.
When the two Corsicans plunged 35 years ago in front of the rock of Pietra Piumbata, they are far from imagining the treasure of which they become the inventors. They quickly exchange parts of sea urchins for fishing for valuables. In one month, the two mates, quickly joined by Felix’s twin brother, Ange Biancamaria, bring to the surface more than 4,000 gold coins, medallions, and plates.
From expertise to judicial inquiry
It’s time for the “vida loca” for young divers who go on evenings and luxury shopping until they spend more than 50,000 euros per week. Félix tries to sell the pieces. He went up several times to Nice and Paris, to numismatic firms. It wasn’t until a year later, when they put part of their trophy up for auction in Monte-Carlo, that the treasure took a new turn. Paul Silvani, correspondent for Le Monde on the Isle of Beauty, then headlines: “Lava’s gold on sale in Monaco”. After anonymous phone calls, the story goes back to the Ajaccio parquet floor. Following a dozen arrests, the judicial investigation is opened.
A scattered Corsican treasure
Lava’s treasure becomes a matter of state in a matter of days. The gendarmerie of Ajaccio and the Department of Underwater and Underwater Archaeological Research (Drassm) are digging the creek, facing the rock of Pietra Piumbata. But the Biancamaria have already sold a good chunk of the pieces. If the treasure is of terrestrial origin, it belongs to the discoverer and the owner of the land, therefore to the twin brothers. If it is a “maritime wreck,” it belongs to the state. After eight years of investigation, the hearing of nearly 500 people, the court sentenced in 1994 the Biancamaria and Marc Cotoni to 18 months probation and a fine of 25,000 francs. In all, only 78 pieces were seized.
Gold coins heading to Hong Kong
In March 2017, the Lava treasure affair resurfaced in Bastia when 4 people were arrested in possession of 16 gold coins hidden in decorative wooden and rubber stamps. Very quickly, the Bastia prosecutor took up the case. For the gendarmes, there is no doubt, these are parts from Lava. The investigation is entrusted to the research section of the Bastia gendarmerie which soon establishes the value of the coins between 50,000 and 700,000 euros. This beautiful transaction was to take place in Hong Kong.
Unfortunately for them, the traffickers, Simon Giuntini and Pierre-François Sabiani, are being examined before they leave. Under pressure from investigators, the two Corsicans acknowledge the facts, as does an accomplice. All are convicted of “association of criminals, smuggling, alienation of cultural property and possession of weapons in an organized gang”. After expert reports, the investigation concludes that the coins were not those of Lava’s treasure, but copies.
The Lava file forgotten
In November 2017, Colonel Michel of the Ajaccio Search Brigade returned the Lava file. At the same time, “Secret of Wrecks” is about to end, an exhibition at the Museum of Bastia that unveils for the first time the centerpiece of Lava’s treasure: a gold plate, estimated at almost 2 million of euros. A few years earlier, this unique object had escaped Felix Biancamaria. In 2010, Corsica traveled to Brussels to bring it back to the Mediterranean, and sell it in Marseille. But the Lava diver, eavesdropping on his departure from Ajaccio, is caught by customs at a Paris train station.
The dish ends up returning to its island. In 2017, once the exhibition is over, it is stored with the other pieces, “Stored in Corsica in secret places”, says the director of the Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs (Drac), Franck Leandri.
Since then, no one has heard of the treasure, as if the secret had been plunged back into the water of the gulf. “According to numismatic experts, no one would risk putting pieces so easily identifiable on the French or even European market ”, explains Colonel Michel. But where did the other pieces of Biancamaria go?
For Nicolas Bessone, prosecutor of Bastia at the time, the parts would be sold on the Asian market allowing traffickers to buy demilitarized weapons in order to put them back into service in Asian countries, and to import them into Europe. If we will never know its exact provenance, the treasure of Lava will in any case have traveled a lot.