"We actually invited the Spanish government to send Archaeologists along."

So said Greg Stemm on the Today show last week discussing the ongoing dispute between Odyssey Marine and Spain. The interview was primarily an excercise in corporate self-promotion for the upcoming special on the sister network at 10 p.m. (ET) on Thursday, April 2, on the Discovery Channel’s “Treasure Quest.” Nonetheless there were some interesting comments made, though there was very little attention paid to archaeology or the importance of preservation of the site and the remains of the vessel.

The odd thing about this dispute and the Today segment in particular are the insistence on painting the controversy in terms of pirates and buried treasure and other romantic ideas. The reality of underwater heritage is far mor nuanced and important.

A few excerpts:

“The ship is the history and national patrimony of Spain, not a site that may be covertly stripped of valuables to sell to collectors. Odyssey was well aware that it is off limits,” said Spain’s American attorney in the case, James Goold.

Odyssey, a publicly held company that is a leader in deep-sea archaeology and treasure recovery, found the vast trove on a 2007 expedition in what it says are international waters off Portugal and the Straits of Gibraltar. The coins were spread over an area the size of several football fields at the bottom of the ocean.

After filling a chartered Boeing 757 with the coins and shipping them to Florida, Odyssey returned to the area to further investigate the site. There they were boarded by a Spanish warship, and the ship and crew were held for several days in a Spanish port.

Stemm concedes that the treasure may have been that carried by the Mercedes, but said that the identity of the vessel has not been established. One difficulty in doing that is that the Mercedes was hit in its powder magazine during the battle and blew up, leaving little actual wreckage at the bottom of the ocean.
Even if it was the Mercedes, Stemm said, that still does not automatically mean that Spain has sole claim to the treasure. Odyssey has argued in court that the Mercedes was carrying the treasure under contract with the merchants who owned it, and as such was acting as a merchant ship and not a warship.

“The Mercedes, if it was the Mercedes, was carrying a merchant cargo,” Stemm said. “While governments can take a sovereign immune warship and say that nobody can salvage it, they can’t say that you can’t salvage goods on behalf of merchants. In fact, we have the descendants of a lot of the merchants that had goods aboard the Mercedes that have come into court and said, ‘We think Odyssey should salvage these goods for us.’ ”

“And remember, there is not even a shipwreck there,” Stemm added. “This is like several football fields of just coins, scattered out over the bottom.”
Stemm says that the original expedition was to an area where his company believed a number of ships had sunk over the years. He said Odyssey notified the Spanish government of its intentions to search the area.

“When we went out to look in this general area, we thought there might be some Spanish shipwrecks,” he told Curry. “We actually invited the Spanish government to send archaeologists along. They just never got back to us.”

Goold has told other news outlets that Spain did respond to the invitation, telling Stemm, “Sunken ships are cultural heritage. Spain does not do commercial deals. It’s national patrimony.”


Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Looting Underwater Sites

Three British divers have plead guilty to looting treasures from a wreck off the coast of Spain:

Peter Devlin, Malcolm Cubin and Steve Russ, all commercial salvagers from Cornwall, were arrested in June 2002 on suspicion of stealing gold and diamonds from a sunken ship off the coast of Galicia, in northwestern Spain.


The three faced prison sentences of up to six years each and heavy fines for theft and destruction of Spain’s cultural heritage. But at a court in Santiago de Compostella yesterday, they pleaded guilty in return for suspended sentences and a fine of €1,000 plus €2,500 costs each.

“We are now convicted criminals in Spain but relieved that after seven years the ordeal is finally over and we won’t have to go to prison,” Mr Cubin (38) a father of four from Truro, said. “We’re disappointed because it’s not what we wanted at all and still maintain we did nothing wrong, but there was nothing else we could do.”

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

UK May Revise Nazi-looted Art Policies

The UK is considering new legislation that would revise the restitution process to more easily allow national museums to return works of art looted during World War II.  The Holocaust (stolen art) restitution bill would allow these institutions to return objects from their collections.  Andrew Dismore, the Labour MP for Hendon is quoted in the Guardian:  “I hope it will close another chapter from the Holocaust . . .  It means recognising a right that has been denied for decades. I suspect many people would be prepared to allow their artwork to stay in public collections but it’s their right to decide what happens to it.”

The change is needed because of cases like this one:

When the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, the Feldmanns were evicted from their home, leaving a collection of Old Master drawings in Gestapo hands. Arthur died after being tortured by the Nazis in the Spilberk Castle prison in his home city of Brno. Gisela died in Auschwitz.

With the help of the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe, Feldmann’s descendants proved that four of his drawings had ended up in the British Museum. The museum was prepared to return them to the family but was blocked by a high court judge. Instead the family negotiated a deal, including an ex-gratia payment of £175,000, that allows the drawings to remain in London. 

Feldmann’s grandson Uri Peled, 66, who lives in Israel, said that although he did not wish to have the items returned, the principle of the bill – allowing the rightful owner to make the decision about what to do with their art – was important.

 The change will open speculation for claims for other works in UK institutions that may have been taken under less-than-appropriate circumstances—like the Parthenon marbles, the Benin bronzes, the Rosetta stone, or the Lewis chessmen.  As such the legislation is limited to “objects stolen between 1933 and 1945 by the Nazi regime”.  Though the legislation is sharply focused on a narrow historical period, one wonders why only those objects are left open for restitutions when the others are not.  The Second World War was a special circumstance perhaps, but its not clear how that historical period is different from other conflicts. 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Treasure Hunting in South Texas

The Houston Chronicle has the story of a dispute before the U.S. District Court over who has title to a ‘barkentine’ which was sunk in 1822 when it was hit with a hurricane:

The Texas Historical Commission this week filed notice that it will ask the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to let it into a lawsuit over who has legal claim to what might be a shipwreck buried 160 miles southwest of Houston, near the Mission River in Refugio County.
“It’s like highway robbery,” Internet treasure hunter Nathan Smith complained Wednesday of the state trying to take away his possible $3 billion claim two years after he filed the lawsuit.
Inspired by the National Treasure movies, Smith read up on lost loot and used the Internet to look for a barkentine that got lost on a South Texas creek in an 1822 hurricane that killed half the crew, leaving the other half to a local cannibal tribe.
Once he spotted something and checked it in person with a metal detector, Smith filed a lawsuit in early 2007. The case was tried last December in a Houston federal court, where he was opposed by landowners who say Smith’s shoeprint-shaped vision is on their land, which they say sometimes floods with the tides.
One issue here is how the court views the findspot. Smith or the state of Texas will have a claim only if the area is determined to be “navigable waters”. If not, the landowners would have title perhaps. Another issue are the heritage laws of Texas:
Steve Hoyt, a marine archeologist for the historical commission, said he cannot comment on the case but that “our intervention is to seek a determination that, if the vessel (if it exists) is in a navigable waterway, it is the property of the state of Texas.”
According to the Antiquities Code of Texas, Hoyt said, historic shipwrecks on submerged lands are the property of Texas, including all parts and contents of the vessel. Hoyt said such wrecks cannot be disturbed without a permit issued by the commission, and those are only for scientific and historic research.

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Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

The Munch Effect

Earlier this month a church in Larvik, Norway was robbed of a work by Lucas Cranach, Let the Children Come to Me.  The work was soon recovered, and will be displayed again later this summer after it is restored. 

It is often said that a high-profile art theft or media attention can actually be a good thing for increasing visitors.  Ludvig Levinsen, the general manager of church affairs is quoted in the Art Newspaper, and speculates on this “Munch effect”, a reference to the increased attention paid to that artist when his works have been stolen in recent years.  Levinsen speculates on the stolen Cranach from his church, “When it was stolen it created a lot of international media attention . . .  Now that we have the painting back we hope people are more aware of what we have.”

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

The Darker Side of Art Theft

On Friday, fifteen works of art were taken from a home near Bruton in Somerset.  A woman was tied up during the theft, and wasn’t found until the next day.  From the BBC:

[T]he woman suffered bruising and was left “extremely shaken and distressed”.

The robbers took 15 paintings, which included Endymion by George Frederic Watts and Apple Blossom by George Clausen.

They also stole some antiques, a safe containing jewellery and a green Mercedes 220.
Det Insp Jim Bigger said: “The size of the some of the items, and amount of property, stolen would suggest that a van or some other fairly sizeable vehicle would have been used.”

 This comes soon after the recovery of stolen art in addition to firearms, heroin, marijuana, and cash which were recovered in New Haven.  Over at the ARCA blog Noah Charney points out “Even with a relatively small-time crook, such as the local New Haven heroin dealer who had stolen art, guns, and drugs in his home, the connection between art theft and ‘more serious’ crimes is evident.” 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

The True/Hecht Trial Continues

The ongoing trial of Marion True and Robert Hecht continued last week in Rome.  It is worth remembering perhaps that this prosecution began in 2005 and alleges True and Hecht conspired to traffic in illegal antiquities. One of the important pieces of evidence are the pictures seized in a 1995 raid of a Geneva warehouse. 

A number of arguments and defenses still need to be presented, and as Elisabetta Povoledo reported on Friday in the NY Times, True and her lawyers intend to defend the acquisition and challenge the prosecution’s evidence on each object.  At the trial True said “If ever there was an indication of proof of an object coming from a certain place, we would deaccession it and return the object, regardless of the statute of limitations”.  The difficulty is the two very different views of what this “proof” may entail.  True will argue that there was no direct evidence for many of these objects that would indicate they were looted; however the prosecution will surely counter that there must have been some indication that these objects could not have just appeared out of thin air, and these masterpieces were certainly looted.  The trade itself capitalizes on these different views by hiding and shielding from view the history of an object. 

There are no indications the trial will conclude any time soon, however when it does, one wonders if there is a  possibility that the defendants may earn a not-guilty verdict.  What consequences might that not-guilty verdict mean?  I think to avoid the possibility of other kinds of acquisitions and prosecutions in the future, we should hold institutions to a higher standard of good faith, and the requirements for this should be made plain for museums, dealers and judges to evaluate future acquisitions. 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com