TWO divers have pleaded guilty to taking items thought to be worth more than £250,000 from shipwrecks off the UK coast.
David Knight, 52, and Edward Huzzey, 55, both from Sandgate, admitted to 19 offences between them for removing items including bronze cannons, propellers, and rare artefacts from wrecks between 2001 and 2006.
The offences relate to sections 236 and 237 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995.
They entered their pleas at Southampton Magistrates' Court this morning.
The items were first removed from shipwrecks of the Kent coast in 2001.
German submarines from the First World War and an unknown 200-year-old wreck carrying English East India Company cargo were targeted by the pair.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) said it is aware from diary entries that Knight and Huzzey used explosives and sophisticated cutting equipment to free wreck material.
Simon May, enforcement officer for the MCA, said outside court the agency is appealing for other missing artefacts to be returned.
He said: “The cannons are worth an estimated £12,000 minimum. There are still six outstanding.
“These are unique, they are incredibly rare.
“Collectors will be after cannons like these. There are none in the UK.
“They were special order from the English East Indian Company and were due to go to the Madras Calvary, which was founded in 1819.
“We know of at least 50 vessels that they targeted.”
Alison Kentuck, the MCA's receiver of wreck, said: “Our message is clear: all wreck material found within or brought within UK territorial waters must be reported to the Receiver of Wreck. It is not a case of 'finders keepers'.
“Finders of wreck have 28 days to declare their finds to the receiver. This case highlights the importance of doing that and demonstrates what could happen to you if you don't.
“By reporting wreck material you are giving the rightful owner the opportunity to have their property returned and you may be adding important information to the historic record.
“Legitimate finders are likely to be entitled to a salvage award, but those who don't declare items are breaking the law and could find themselves facing hefty fines.”
English Heritage has provided advice on handling cultural objects, assessed the importance of objects seized as evidence and provided expert advice in relation to uncontrolled salvage on submerged archaeological remains.
Mark Harrison, English Heritage's national policing and crime adviser, said: "We recognise that the majority of divers enjoy the historic marine environment and comply with the laws and regulations relating to wrecks and salvage.
“This case sends out a clear message that the small criminal minority will be identified and brought to justice."
Mark Dunkley, English Heritage's maritime designation adviser, said: "The investigation has highlighted the need to tackle heritage crime, wherever it occurs, so that the remains of our past remain part of our future."
The pair will be sentenced on July 2.
The MCA would also like to appeal to the public regarding the whereabouts of six bronze cannons that remain outstanding.
They were constructed in 1807 by W&G and have the English East India Company logo (VEIC) on them.
If anyone knows the location of any of these cannons, please contact the Receiver of Wreck on 02380 329 474.