Author's ordeal after she and husband arrested over gold from sunken ship they were given in 1986
EXCLUSIVE: A BESTSELLING author found herself at the centre of a fantastical plot of her own after she and her 80-year-old husband were arrested in connection with an international probe into treasure allegedly stolen from a sunken ship 47 years ago.
Gay Courter, 78, (above left) who wrote five New York Times best-sellers, and husband Philip (above right), a retired documentary maker, were arrested on a European Arrest Warrant for questioning in France about offences of alleged money laundering, receiving stolen goods and export of cultural property in connection with Chinese engraved gold ingots they were given by a friend in 1986.
The couple, of “impeccable record and character,” spent three days on remand between them and hundreds of thousand of pounds fighting the extradition.
Last week, the extradition request was dropped, meaning they no longer face any accusations from the French. They have always denied any wrongdoing.
Mrs Courter has sold millions of books worldwide and her best-known novels include The Midwife (above), which was one of the top-selling books of 1982, River of Dreams and Code Ezra.
The US citizens, from Cambridge, were arrested in June after they got off a cruise ship at Southampton.
They were given the free cruise to the Norway Fjords as compensation after they were among hundreds of pensioners stuck on the Diamond Princess cruise ship at Yokohama docks, Japan, for a month at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.
French police wanted to question the couple (above on the cruise) after they put a number of the ingots, each weighing 13 ounces, up for sale at a Californian auction in 2017.
Upon arrest, they were taken to a hearing at Westminster Magistrates' Court and remanded into custody until they were bailed after they each paid £1,000 security.
Mrs Courter said: "We were taken straight to court and asked if we would go with the French who had come to take us. We were completely blindsided, we had never been arrested before.
"We were put in maximum security prisons. Philip was in Wandsworth Prison two nights with a drug addict coughing up blood in his cell. I was in Bronzefield one night. I cannot describe how immediately broken I was."
The gold in question had been taken by divers in 1975 from the wreck of the Prince de Conty (above), a French frigate which sank in the Atlantic 10 miles off the French coast in December 1746 while returning from China with tea, ceramics and about 100 of the ingots.
In 1974 divers found it and a year later they returned to take the loot, allegedly without informing French authorities as required.
Among the divers were relativges of the late Gerard Pesty, who the Courters befriended when they spent time in France.
Mrs Courter said: "About 40 years ago a good friend of ours from France showed up at our house in Florida with a briefcase filled with gold.
"Before he brought it, he took it to the British Museum (below image: The Trustees of the British Museum) and they bought three pieces. About 20 years ago in London we went to the museum and saw them on exhibit and talked to them about it. They knew the whole story and asked if there were any more."
As Mr Pesty spent much time at sea he wanted the couple to look after the gold and sell it from time to time and pass on the money to his relatives.
Mrs Courter added: "And all the money went to them. He just helped with the British Museum sale and brought it into the US, legally and through customs. In the USA there is no customs duty on gold or antiques—both then and now."
Mr Courter and Mr Pesty had a joint bank account to enable this with the gold kept in a vault.
Mr Pesty died aged 51 in 1997 and the Courters continued the arrangement with his family who, were still on a boat, and asked them to sell the gold years later.
Mrs Courter put five of the ingots (above) on sale through an auction in California in 2017, valued at £190,000, and they sold the following year.
Unbeknown to the Courters, France had been investigating the missing gold since at least the 1980s with charges filed against 12 people in 1983.
Within days of the sale the gold was seized by US Homeland Security.
Mrs Courter said: "Homeland Security came to our house to ask about the gold and said it had been stolen from France.
"We didn't hear anymore but earlier this year there was an article in the New York Times (image of the gold from it above) about a ceremony giving the gold back to France. Then my attorney was contacted by the French asking us to answer some questions."
She thinks the arrest warrants were issued due to miscommunication between US and French lawyers about their willingness to cooperate.
The six-month extradition case has cost the Courters more than £330,000 in legal and other fees, with nine lawyers in three countries, and more bills expected.
A hearing at Westminster Magistrates' Court on Wednesday heard the warrants were withdrawn after protracted negotiations with the French.
Their solicitor Hassan Khan said: "My clients are retired USA citizens of impeccable record and character.
"The request for their extradition by France was made in the context of seeking wider information as part of an ongoing case against others. Mr and Mrs Courter are fully and consensually co-operating with the French authorities.
"They deny any wrongdoing."
Mrs Courter (seen above in the 1980s) said: "This was not about guilt or innocence but just whether we would be shipped to France. How many people who can't afford lawyers are being held for extradition without evidence?
"Did they even look at who we were as human beings? It broke our hearts. They said we were part of a criminal gang, but this gang was two families with four children. We were very depressed and lost six months of our lives when we could not see our family and missed the birth of a baby.
"Looking back we are like 'what were we thinking'. We were very naive but he had already sold some to the British Museum and had all the paperwork. We thought we were just helping a friend. We didn't profit from it and never owned the gold.
"We were never charged with any crime. They were merely accusations. We were never part of the French case.
"This is important because the very unfair European Arrest Warrant allows certain special countries like France, Italy and Austria to merely accuse someone of a crime.
"And, even worse, they do not have to provide any evidence in order to arrest for extradition. Most other countries have a much higher bar.
"Most people held for extradition have committed very serious crimes against other persons or involve millions of pounds of economic crime etc. We wonder how many people like us are being held without any proof or evidence and unable to afford private legal assistance."
British Museum records (below) show a G Pesty sold some of the ingots to the museum in 1986.
There is talk of the French trying to force the return of the ingots from the British Museum and China has also tried to lay claim to the ingots.
A museum spokesman said: "We have not received any formal correspondence to date, if we do, we will consider it carefully and respectfully."
In 2003, when Mr Courter was 59, she co-authored with Pat Gaudette, the book How to Survive Your Husband's Midlife Crisis: Strategies and Stories from The Midlife Wives Club.
In late 2020 she published the book Quarantine: How I survived the Diamond Princess Coronavirus Crisis.
Asked if her next book would be about the extradition case, she said: "I don't know. All we want right now is to be with our family for christmas."