Debris from Swissair Flight 111 is lifted from the ocean floor by the heavy-lift barge Sea Sorceress off the coast of Nova Scotia near New Harbour on Wednesday Oct. 14, 1998.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

20 years later: Diamonds, jewels, a Picasso and cash still missing after plane crash

The enduring mystery of the lost diamonds from the crash of Swissair Flight 111. More than five kilograms of diamonds and jewels. A Picasso worth millions. Nearly 50 kilograms in cash.

More than five kilograms of diamonds and jewels. A Picasso worth millions. Nearly 50 kilograms in cash.

The fate of many millions of dollars of valuables said to be carried aboard Swissair Flight 111 when it went down off Nova Scotia 20 years ago this Sunday remains unknown.

Insiders say the mystery may never be solved — an attempt to salvage the precious cargo was quickly abandoned, and any treasure hunters who seek to find it are doing it illegally.

“There was a lot of talk about it after the crash, that there had been all these valuables on board. That was a big deal,” said Stephen Kimber, author of the book “Flight 111: A Year in the Life of a Tragedy.”

“Somewhere down at the bottom of the ocean, theoretically, are those diamonds.”

When the plane hit the water off Peggy’s Cove on Sept. 2, 1998, all 229 passengers and crew on board died instantly and the fuselage shattered into several million pieces.

USS Grapple — an American navy ship equipped with a giant vacuum — was brought in to suck up debris from the sea floor. The Transportation Safety Board’s investigation report said more than 18,000 kilograms of cargo were recovered, but does not go into further detail.

According to Kimber, the plane’s manifest included a diamond from a “Nature of Diamonds” exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, one kilogram of other diamonds and about 4.5 kilograms of other jewelry, 49 kilograms of cash, and a multi-million-dollar version of Picasso’s Le Peintre.

Insurer Lloyd’s of London reportedly paid out an estimated $300 million for the diamonds and other jewels, and had applied for a treasure-trove licence from the Nova Scotia government to search the site following the federal investigation. But that plan outraged many of the victims’ relatives, and the company eventually withdrew its application.

Lloyd’s did not return a request for comment this week.

Related: Sole survivor in B.C. plane crash on the mend, family says

Related: Day after plane crash escape in Mexico, survivors resume travel

A two-kilometre-square exclusion zone around the site was maintained for just over a year following the crash, the RCMP said.

“RCMP, DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) and the Coast Guard conducted patrols of the area to maintain security of the scene. If someone tried to enter the area, they could have been charged with obstruction under the Criminal Code, or perhaps other offences under the various federal acts that might apply,” said Nova Scotia RCMP spokeswoman Cpl. Jennifer Clarke in an email statement.

“Once the restrictions were lifted, the RCMP would not be aware of people going to the area to search for valuables, as it would not have been an offence or a police matter. This continues to be the case.”

John Wesley Chisholm, a Halifax-based TV documentary producer who has worked on shows including “Clive Cussler’s The Sea Hunters,” raised the possibility that international treasure hunters could have been quietly searching the area in the years following the crash under treasure trove licences for nearby sites — including the wreck of HMS Fantome in Prospect, N.S.

“It’s a business that’s riddled with intrigue and deception,” said Chisholm, adding that there are roughly 10,000 shipwrecks along Nova Scotia’s rugged coastline.

“A very common treasure-hunting technique is to say, ‘Oh yeah we’re looking for this wreck over here,’ like the Fantome… where they may in fact have been looking for the Swissair treasure.”

Chisholm said Nova Scotia’s laws at the time made it “the wild west of treasure hunting in the ocean,” but the rules were out of sync with global standards.

Today, treasure hunting is illegal in Nova Scotia.

Lynette MacLeod, a spokeswoman for department of Communities, Culture and Heritage, said paleontology and archaeology sites on land and in water, under public or private ownership, are protected under the Special Places Protection Act.

“Those who damage or destroy important sites face stiff penalties under the Criminal Code of Canada, and stop-orders are enforced if sites are threatened by development. All enforcement is through RCMP and other law enforcement agencies,” said MacLeod.

“The Government of Nova Scotia highly discourages any diving activity or treasure hunting in the area of the Swissair crash out of respect for the crash victims and families involved in the tragedy.”

Chisholm said the current provincial restrictions were implemented roughly a decade ago, “And the whole world of treasure hunting went radio silent after that.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s not still happening.

Timothy Lightfoot, a commercial diver from the Halifax area, said it’s known within the small diving community that there are “pirate” divers.

“There are people in this province, divers, rogues, that are out raiding treasure wrecks and plane crashes for their own benefit,” said Lightfoot, who has been a commercial diver for 17 years.

Asked if he has heard of pirate divers scouring the Swissair site, Lightfoot said: “I’m not saying no one has ever gone there, I’m saying, they’re not talking about it.”

He said the tragedy not only took the lives of 229 men, women and children, it had an emotional toll on the people who worked on the investigation.

“If you tell me you were diving down on Swissair, I have a lower opinion of your moral ethics,” said Lightfoot.

Nevertheless, Chisholm believes some treasure hunters see it differently.

“Treasure, it just makes people crazy… Somehow, it just pulls on the psyche of men to do crazy things,” he said.

“The notion that there could be $300 million of diamonds just there, out of sight, just away from where everyone is, is just an absolutely irresistible pull for a certain kind of person.”

Kimber’s book said Picasso’s Le Peintre, valued at C$2.2 million, wasn’t specially packaged for shipping — it was simply inside a wooden frame and stowed with the rest of the general cargo.

But other cargo was handled with greater care, the book said.

It said the plane’s valuables case — a one-metre-high aluminum container with reinforced walls, a locked door and a metal seal — contained the exhibition diamond, which was being shipped back to its owner in Europe, along with 49 kilograms of banknotes destined for a U.S. bank in Geneva and the jewelry.

“If Flight 111 had become well known as a shuttle bus for United Nations staff, it was equally popular, if publicly less well known, as a courier service for jewellers who used the flight to transport valuables back and forth between gem centres in the United States and Europe,” an excerpt from the book reads.

Kimber noted it’s not known if the valuables even survived the crash.

“What you essentially have is a plane going 500 kilometres an hour and hitting water, which is like concrete,” he said.

“What happened was in one third of a second, the tail of the plane was in the nose of the plane… So it’s hard to know what happened to the things that were aboard the plane.”

Aly Thomson, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

The Sadies slide into the City on Nov. 6th

Popular band gearing up for a show at The Hideout

Recreational pot is now officially legal

Here are some things you need to know and how legal recreational pot will affect you in Red Deer

Puff, puff, pass: Cannabis is officially legal across Canada

Alberta readies itself for cannabis sales with 17 stores (for now) and a new provincial website

WATCH: Canadian Finals Rodeo only two weeks away

Mayor calls CFR an opportunity to showcase Red Deer

Mellow opening to B.C.’s only legal pot shop

About five people lined up early for the opening of the BC Cannabis Store in Kamloops.

Test case challenges a politician’s right to block people from Twitter account

3 people say Watson infringed their constitutional right to freedom of expression by blocking them

After 50 years, ‘Sesame Street’ Big Bird puppeteer retiring

The puppeteer who has played Big Bird on “Sesame Street” is retiring after nearly 50 years on the show.

Britain, EU decide to take some time in getting Brexit right

Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said “we need much time, much more time and we continue to work in the next weeks.”

Parole denied for convicted killer-rapist Paul Bernardo after 25 years in prison

Paul Bernardo plead for release on Wednesday by arguing he has done what he could to improve himself during his 25 years in prison.

B.C. Lions look to cement CFL playoff spot with victory over Eskimos

B.C. can cement a post-season berth in the wild West Division on Friday night with a home win over the Edmonton Eskimos

Canada ban on asbestos takes effect but mining residues are exempt

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna plans to announce the new regulations implementing the ban on Thursday in Ottawa

Harry and Meghan bring rain to drought-stricken Outback town

Prince Harry and his wife Meghan are on day two of their 16-day tour of Australia and the South Pacific.

Demand for legalized cannabis in early hours draws lineups, heavy web traffic

Government-run and privately operated sales portals went live at 12:01 a.m. local time across Canada, eliciting a wave of demand.

Most Read