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

Fake and Stolen Dalis Seized

From the BBC:

Spanish police say they have confiscated dozens of suspected fake artworks by Salvador Dali that were to be sold in the town of Estepona.  More than 80 pieces were seized, 12 of which might be genuine, but are on Interpol records as having been stolen in Belgium, France and the US.  A fake 10ft (3m) Dali sculpture of an elephant was priced at $1.5m (£1.1m).

Police have arrested a Frenchman who transported the pieces from France for the sale. He was not identified.

The art includes sculptures, lithographs, engravings, cutlery and textile pieces.
Police also uncovered “20 certificates of authenticity” for sculptures attributed to the Spanish artist.  Police said their suspicions were raised because the Frenchman had not sought special security arrangements for the show.  Dali died in 1989, leaving a multi-million dollar estate, the exact value of which is difficult to calculate partly because of the widespread existence of forgeries.

The works were seized from the town of Estepona, a resort town.  Reminding us again, that when you’re on vacation, take extra care when purchasing art. Of the 81 seized works, 12 were thought to have been genuine.  The difficulty, it seems, is with the huge number of Dali works, and purported works.  From the Times

Dalí, who died 20 years ago tomorrow at the age of 84, was said to have flooded the art market with thousands of fakes. He is thought to have signed as many as 35,000 blank sheets of paper to which lithographs could later be applied at any time. Some auction houses will not touch his work
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Alderman on the Black Swan Litigation

Kimberley Alderman, over at the Cultural Property & Archaeology Law Blog updates the ongoing dispute between Odyssey Marine Exploration and Spain, with a helpful copy of Odyssey’s response, without exhibits:

 

Spain asks to dismiss based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction in that they are a sovereign entity.  They argue that the coins were theirs, so the coins are sovereign immune under the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act.  This is usually used when a shipwreck is a military ship, because until a State has disclaimed their property, they still own it.  So Spain asserts that Odyssey got the coins from the shipwreck is of Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, that its a sovereign ship, and that the U.S. District Court court doesn’t have jurisdiction over them or their coins (e.g., Odyssey needs to get their mitts off of the treasure.)

Enter Odyssey, stage right, who has some pretty good attorneys by the way. They argue, (1) that there is no ship, and no proof that the Mercedes is where the coins originated. There were just a bunch of coins scattered about on the ocean floor. (In another part of the motion, Odyssey points out the coins were salvaged in an archaeologically-sound manner).  Therefore, sovereign immunity doesn’t apply.

They back it up with (2) even if the coins came from the Mercedes, they aren’t sovereign immune for a couple reasons.  First, the Mercedes is not sovereign immune because it was not exclusively noncommercial at the time of its sinking (was carrying commercial cargo and passengers).  Second, the specific journey the Mercedes was on at the time of its sinking was primarily commercial.  Finally, most of the Mercedes cargo was commercially owned and therefore wouldn’t be sovereign immune.

The parties are still at the Summary Judgment stage, in which Spain is essentially arguing the dispute cannot continue because Odyssey cannot win, even if the judge were to adopt Odyssey’s view of the evidence.  The dispute may hinge on Spain’s ownership of a long-sunk vessel, and what activities it was engaged in hundreds of years ago when she went under.  One policy to note, Odyssey has a vested interest in not undertaking a serious archaeological exploration of the vessel, as the more information they have destroyed, the harder it will be for Spain to establish its claim.  Regardless of who wins the dispute, that is not a helpful policy.  

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

Profile of an Antiquities Dealer


The Associated Press has an extended profile of Leonardo Patterson. An antiquities dealer from Costa Rica who is currently being investigated by German and Spanish authorities. In April, police in Munich seized more than 1,000 objects from his warehouse.

Pictured here is Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva. He received a catalog of Patterson’s antiquities in 1997:

[H]e saw more than 250 ancient Peruvian pieces, mostly from tombs raided in the late 1980s. There were necklaces made of gold and lapis lazuli from la Mina in northern Peru. There were copper masks and a necklace made of 30 gold spiral-shaped ornaments from Sipan, the center of the Mochica culture dating to 200 A.D.

Alva was not surprised that many of the pieces had ended up in private European collections.

“There is a very active market in the United States and Europe,” said Alva. “We have to eliminate this idea that those who collect archaeological artifacts are cultivated people.”

He asked Interpol in Lima to investigate. Interpol in turn asked a Lima court for an international arrest warrant for Patterson in 2004. Four years later, there has been no ruling, according to Interpol officials in Lima.

Patterson is accused of selling fakes and forgeries as well as looted antiquities. It seems Patterson may have been connected in some way to the looted Peruvian gold headdress which was recovered from Patterson’s lawyer’s office in 2006.

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

Spain Claims "Black Swan" is the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes

Yesterday, Spain filed papers before US Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo in the Federal District Court for the Central District of Florida. They argued the evidence provided to them by Odyssey Marine has been evaluated by Spanish archaeologists and that “with complete certainty” these objects came from the colonial galleon Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, sunk by the British in 1804.

In March, judge Pizzo ordered Odyssey to share information with the Spanish, Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. v. The Unidentified Shipwrecked Vessel, 2008 WL 691686 M.D.Fla.,2008. (March 12, 2008). Spain’s announcement yesterday appears to be is response and evaluation fo this evidence provided by Odyssey. Despite attempting to with hold the location of the wreck, and even code-naming the find the Black Swan, Spain has seemingly established the identity of the vessel. James Goold, counsel for Spain argued “The mystery is over … [the treasure] belongs to the Spanish Armada.” Certainly, Spain is staking its claim to the moral high ground, as it apparently argued yesterday that it never authorized Odyssey to molest the “gravesite of hundreds of Spanish sailors and their family members.”

Yesterday’s filings don’t yet appear to be available on Westlaw, but as I understand, Spain is arguing the Kingdom of Spain has not abandoned ownership rights in the vessel or the cargo. Further, Spain argues it has not permitted the salvage of its vessels without authorization. Spain is asserting its rights under sovereign immunity. As I’ve stated before,
under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, of 1976, Spain may be able to claim the coins, so long as the vessel was not engaged in commercial operations. This may lead to the strange situation where a determinative issue may involve Spain and Odyssey Marine arguing over the primary motive of a vessel and her crew which may have sank over two-hundred years ago.

None of this controversy seems to be helping Odyssey’s stock price, which is down 22% this year. The finds may be worth as much as $500 million US, but its beginning to look increasingly likely that Spain is gaining the upper hand, and Odyssey may be in jeopardy of earning any salvage award.

Related Posts.

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

"…no more archeology than…collecting Indian arrowheads"


So says George Bass, a nautical archaeologist at Texas A&M University in an excellent article by John Colapinto in the most recent edition of the New Yorker on Odyssey Marine, titled “Secrets of the Deep”.

In May of 2007 the company announced it had discovered a large colonial-era wreck which may perhaps be the largest underwater treasure recovery in history. Before the announcement the company “had transferred the gold to fife hundred and fifty-one plastic buckets, loaded them onto a chartered jet, and flown them to the United States from Gibraltar.” The company has termed the wreck a code name, the Black Swan, and refused to divulge its location. At present, Spain has brought suit in Federal District Court in Tampa, Florida seeking recovery of the coins under the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Presiding over the case is U.S. District Court Judge Mark Pizzo, who incidentally presided over a Securities and Exchange Commission trial of many of the managers of a company called Seahawk for insider trading. The defendants there were acquitted, but went on to found Odyssey Marine.

Under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, of 1976, Spain may be able to claim the coins, so long as the vessel was not engaged in commercial operations. This may lead to the strange issue of Spain and Odyssey Marine arguing over the primary motive of a vessel and her crew which may have sank over two-hundred years ago.

There have been no shortage of critics of Odyssey Marine and its endeavors. UNESCO Director General Koichiro Matsuura strongly condemned the efforts in an editorial in the Miami Herald, and Peru has even stated its ethical claim for the gold.

Greg Stemm is the current CEO of Odyssey Marine, who was acquitted in the earlier SEC prosecution, argues in the New Yorker that “by publicizing the shipwrecks it finds–on TV specials, in books, and on its Web site–the company does more to educate people about our seafaring past than academics do.” As Stemm says “If I were an archeologist today, I’d be saying, ‘Why aren’t we out there working with [them]?”

Colapinto has helpfully solicited the opinions of some archaeologists, and they are not positive. George Bass of Texas A&M says “Finding, raising, and conserving artifacts is no more archeology than my aunt’s careful collecting of Indian arrowheads on her South Carolina farm.” I’m hardly an expert on marine archaeology, but there seems to be a very big gap between Odyssey’s activities and Bass’ efforts in excavating an 11th-century wreck off Turkey. He and the team of researchers spent three decades “piec[ing] together nearly a million fragments of glass retrieved from the wreck. These yielded beakers, cups, bowls, and bottles, and, for the first time, information about medieval Islamic glassware.” Careful excavation of underwater sites can reveal important historical information. The Titanic may not have been sunk by an iceberg, but by cheap rivets (it was this tragic disaster that spawned perhaps the worst movie of the last 20 years).

I find myself becoming more concerned with Odyssey Marine and its methods the more I learn about them. Their purpose in the Black Swan case has been all about the coins, and there are even indications they have manipulated news reports and discoveries to time with selling shares in the company. In this case, the more they know about the wreck, the harder it may be to keep the coins. They do not seem to interested in serious archaeological study, but rather want a kind of superficial appearance of archaeological study to sell more of the objects they find. Odyssey, nor the predecessor company Seahawk has never published any of its research in a peer-reviewed journal. I think there is a lot to criticize about Odyssey’s approach. However I do not think the UK and Spain are entirely blameless either. They have hired the company to search their waters, and it strikes me as a bit odd that Spain has reacted in this way when they had hired Odyssey Marine to search Spanish waters.

The presumption has long been that the salvor will be entitled to a portion of what they find on the ocean because they have risked their equipment, or their lives in some cases to salvage underwater sites. That general position will not change any time soon. The 2001 UNESCO Underwater Heritage Convention takes an aggressive line, and prohibits all commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage. This is a step many nations will refuse to take. Only 15 nations have signed on, and the convention requires 20 before it enters into force. In this case, by arguing too vehemently, I think UNESCO has left itself with no say on the disposition of underwater sites found in international waters.

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

Peru Wants a Piece of the Black Swan

Sam Jones of the Guardian had an interesting article earlier this week updating the dispute between Spain and Odyssey Marine over the enormous shipwreck known as the Black Swan. Odyssey Marine recovered a massive amount of gold off the ocean floor, which may in fact be the wreck of the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes. The dispute is currently pending in US Federal Court in Florida; the admiralty law of salvage will most likely dictate that Odyssey Marine will at the very least get to keep a substantial portion of their haul provided the wreck was found in international waters.

Now it seems Peru has made claims:

But Madrid and Odyssey are now facing growing calls from Peru for some, or all, of the Mercedes’ cargo to be returned to the South American country.
Peruvian campaigners say that because the gold and silver coins were probably minted from metal taken without permission by the Spaniards, they belong to the modern-day country, not its former colonial master.
Last year, Peru’s production minister, Rafael Rey, said it was only “logical” that his country would seek the treasure’s return.
Blanca Alva Guerrero, director of the defence of cultural patrimony at Peru’s National Institute of Culture, said: “If we can establish that some or all of the recovered artefacts came from Peru, we are ready to reclaim them as material remnants of our past.”
She added that Peru had a legal right to recover any items deemed part of its “cultural heritage”.
Mariana Mould de Pease, a Peruvian historian who has successfully campaigned to oblige Yale University to return hundreds of artefacts taken from the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, said that although Spain had “acted duplicitously, and – where necessary – brutally” during the colonial period, she hoped a deal could be reached. “Given the historical ties between the two countries, I think Peru should join Spain in taking part in the scientific recovery of the ship’s contents.”
She said that Italy’s recent success in securing the return of Roman items from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty Museum in the US had “already influenced countries such as Peru when it comes to taking legal action founded on cultural restitution”.
Spain, however, has so far dismissed the Peruvian claim, saying that the Mercedes was sailing under a Spanish flag and pointing out that Peru did not exist as a country in 1804.

This appears to be nothing of substance backing this up. I do not see any way in which Peru could intervene in the dispute between Spain and Odyssey Marine. Perhaps others are aware of this kind of thing working in other contexts, but as vile as the conquistadors may have been, they weren’t dealing with a legal entity or nation as they understood it. Peru did not exist when this gold was taken.
Also, many will of course note that the agreement between Yale and Peru is hardly a done deal, despite the fact its probably about as good a deal as Peru could get under the circumstances.

I’m also surprised at how the Italian repatriation successes of recent years are continuing to appear in circumstances which are wholly unrelated. The Odyssey project, as flawed as some may believe it was, appears completely legal, and is a far cry from the looting which the Italian repatriations were responding too.

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