Anonymous  /  AP
In this undated file photo released by the Italian Fire Brigade, Vigili del Fuoco, firemen scuba divers check one of the propellers of the luxury cruise ship Costa Concordia that run ashore off the Tuscany island of Isola del Giglio, Italy.
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updated 2/2/2012 6:30:25 PM ET 2012-02-02T23:30:25

In the chaotic evacuation of the Costa Concordia, passengers and crew abandoned almost everything on board the cruise ship: jewels, cash, champagne, antiques, 19th century Bohemian crystal glassware, thousands of art objects including 300-year-old woodblock prints by a Japanese master.

In other words, a veritable treasure now lies beneath the pristine Italian waters where the luxury liner ran aground last month.

Though some objects are bound to disintegrate, there is still hoard enough to tempt treasure seekers — just as the Titanic and countless shipwrecks before have lured seekers of gold, armaments and other riches for as far back as mankind can remember.

It may be just a matter of time before treasure hunters set their sights on the sunken spoils of the Costa Concordia, which had more than 4,200 people on board.

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Slideshow: Luxury cruise ship runs aground (on this page)

"As long as there are bodies in there, it's considered off base to everybody because it's a grave," said Robert Marx, a veteran diver and the author of numerous books on maritime history and underwater archaeology and treasure hunting. "But when all the bodies are out, there will be a mad dash for the valuables."

The Mafia, he said, even has underwater teams that specialize in going after sunken booty.

The Costa Concordia was essentially a floating luxury hotel and many of the passengers embarked on the ill-fated cruise with their finest clothes and jewels so they could parade them in casinos and at gala dinners beneath towering chandeliered ceilings.

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On top of that was massive wealth belonging to the ship itself: elegant shops stocked with jewelry, more than 6,000 works of art decorating walls and a wellness spa containing a collection of 300-year-old woodblock prints by Katsushika Hokusai, a Japanese artist most famous for his work of a giant wave framing Mount Fuji in the distance.

"It's now a paradise for divers," said Hans Reinhardt, a German lawyer who represents 19 German passengers seeking compensation for their loss. He said some of his clients traveled with diamond-studded jewels and other heirlooms that had been in their families for generations.

"They lost lots of jewelry — watches, necklaces, whatever women wear when they want to get well dressed," Reinhardt said. "They wanted to show off what they have."

The massive cruise liner itself is worth €450 million ($590), but that doesn't take into account the value of all other objects on board, said Costa Crociere, the Italian company that operated the Costa Concordia.

Video: Italy calls off Costa Concordia search (on this page)

Among the sunken objects are furniture, the vast art collection, computers, wine, champagne, as well as whatever valuables were locked away in safes in private cabins, the Costa Crociere press office said. The company still legally owns the ship and the passengers own their sunken objects.

"Quantifying this is impossible because unfortunately the ship has sunk," Costa Crociere said. "Until the ship is recovered there's no way to know what can be saved and what can't."

The ship ran aground off the Tuscan island of Giglio after the captain, Francesco Schettino, veered from his approved course, apparently to move closer to entertain passengers with a closer view of the island — a common cruise ship practice. Schettino is now under house arrest, facing accusations of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship before all passengers were evacuated. Seventeen people are confirmed killed in the Jan. 13 shipwreck, with 15 more still missing.

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For now, the ship's wreckage has been impounded by authorities and is surrounded by rescue workers, cleanup crews and scientists monitoring its stability on the rocky perch where it ran aground. Civil Protection, the agency that is running the rescue effort, says there is so much activity surrounding it now that authorities don't see a risk of looting yet. It also says it plans to remove the wreckage before looters can reach it.

After the ship ran aground, authorities passed a decree preventing anyone from coming within a nautical mile of the wreck, a ruling that will be valid as long as the huge liner is still in place, the Coast Guard said.

"The ship is being guarded 24 hours a day. It's not possible to even get close," said Lt. Massimo Maccheroni, a Coast Guard official.

Civil Protection director Franco Gabrielli said recently that it could take seven to 10 months to remove the 950 foot-long (290 meter-long) ship once a contract is awarded for the job.

Costa Concordia removal could take up to a year

But Marx, whose 64 books include "Treasure Lost at Sea," says that divers inevitably make a dash for sunken loot, even at great risk, and that they treat shipwrecks as a free for all.

He estimates that it will take about four to six months before a real treasure hunt will start — in part because divers will want to avoid the rough winter sea. He said some divers will be put off because the ship is still shifting on the reef it collided into and is considered unstable.

But soon, treasure hunters will go.

"Bright-eyed divers will want to make a fortune," Marx said.

Even now, there are those trying to make a profit off the disaster. On eBay, all sorts of trinkets related to the shipwreck have already come up for sale, from coat hangers and medallions embossed with the cruise liner's name to a Costa Concordia desk plan.

Marx said that everything that is pulled up from this now-famous ship will have value, noting that even coal brought up from the Titanic, which sank 100 years ago, has found eager buyers.

"Even the dishes, the crockery inside that ship — that's going to be worth an absolute fortune," Marx said.

Cruise passenger booted for skipping safety drill

Reinhardt, the German lawyer, says his clients would love nothing more than to get back their cherished valuables, which often carry emotional value. But at this point they are merely counting on a cash settlement.

"They would prefer to get their original stuff," he said. "But they don't have hope."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Luxury cruise ship Costa Concordia runs aground

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  1. People on lifeboats evacuate the Costa Concordia after it ran aground on Jan. 13, 2012, killing 32 people. The cruise ship is the subject of the biggest salvage operation in maritime history (Giuseppe Modesti / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Passengers arrive at Porto Santo Stefano on Jan. 14 after the Costa Concordia ran aground off the Italian island of Giglio. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Costa Concordia cruise liner captain Francesco Schettino is escorted by Italian police on Jan. 14, 2012, in Grosseto. Schettino was arrested on charges of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship, police said. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Firefighters on a dinghy look at a rock emerging from the side of the Costa Concordia on Jan. 15, 2012. (Andrea Sinibaldi / Lapresse via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A woman looks at the wreck of the Costa Concordia cruise liner on Jan. 16, 2012. (Gregorio Borgia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A satellite image shows the wreck of the Costa Concordia off the island of Giglio on Jan. 17, 2012. (DigitalGlobe) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Search and rescue teams continue the search for survivors on the Costa Concordia on Jan. 19, 2012. (Tullio M. Puglia / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Police divers look at the bell of the stricken Costa Concordia luxury liner during their underwater search on Jan. 19, 2012. (Carabinieri via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Divers make their way into a flooded cabin of the Costa Concordia cruise ship In this undated photo released by the Italian Navy on Jan. 24, 2012. (Italian Navy / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The capsized Costa Concordia cruise ship lies off the snow-covered island of Giglio on Feb. 11, 2012. (Giampiero Sposito / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A boy prepares to snorkel in front of the wreckage of the capsized cruise liner Costa Concordia on Aug. 28, 2012. (Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. The Costa Concordia cruise ship lays near the harbor of Giglio on Oct. 14, 2012. The luxury cruise ship capsized and sank on Jan. 13, 2012, after approaching the Tuscan island of Giglio to perform a manuever close to the shore known as a "salute." (Filippo Monteforte / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Workers stand on the Costa Concordia cruise ship near the port on Jan. 8, 2013 on the Italian island of Giglio. (Filippo Monteforte / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An aerial view, taken from an Italian Navy helicopter, shows the Costa Concordia surrounded by other vessels on Aug. 26. (Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A diver participates in a search operation Sept. 24, 2013, for two missing bodies onboard the Costa Concordia. The last two missing bodies were recovered on Sept. 26. (Laura Lezza / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Vessels surround the wreck of the Costa Concordia cruise ship during an operation to refloat the boat on July 14, 2014 off the Italian island of Giglio. More than two-and-a-half years after it crashed off in a nighttime disaster which left 32 people dead, the plan is to raise and tow the vessel in an unprecedented and delicate operation for its final journey to the shipyard where it was built in the port of Genoa. (Vincenzo Pinto / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Italy calls off Costa Concordia search

  1. Closed captioning of: Italy calls off Costa Concordia search

    >>> in italy tonight, officials there say they have called off the search for missing people in the submerged portion of that costa concordia vessel because it's just become too dangerous for the divers on the job. they'll continue to search the portion above the water line and around the coastline. 16 people are still listed, remember, as officially m lly missing. that includes an american couple from minnesota. 15 people

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