11th Circuit Ruling Deals a Big Blow to Odyssey Marine

The explosion of the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes

The 11th Circuit has ruled that the objects brought up from the wreck initially code-named the “Black Swan” should be released immediately to the custody of Spain. In response Odyssey’s stock is dropping rapidly.

In a press release Odyssey has said it will ask the full 11th Circuit to rehear the case en banc with the full complement of Federal Judges rather than the three judge panel which decided this appeal.

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

The Smithsonian Postpones Dhow Exhibition

Bronze Coins from the Tang Dynasty, Brought up from the 9th Century Wreck

In a move which shouldn’t be all that surprising, the Smithsonian has decided to postpone the exhibition of artifacts recovered from a 9th century shipwreck which sunk off the coast of present-day Indonesia. The wreck offered new insights into the trade between China and the Middle East. The exhibition was scheduled to begin next spring, but now won’t be rescheduled until 2013 at the earliest.

Archaeologists criticized the exhibition arguing that the objects were recovered without adherence to professional archaeological standards. Fishermen were looting the wreck, and in response the Indonesian government hired a salvage company to bring the objects up from the depths, and did employ a marine archaeologist. The objects were brought up quickly, but in the eyes of some, these objects were little better than looted objects. Archaeologists like Kimberly Faulk who call the salvage of these objects ‘looting’ are stretching the term. Michael Flecker, an archaeologist who worked for the commercial salvage operation published his findings:

  1. Flecker, Michael. “A 9th-Century Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. Volume 29(2), 2000.
  2. Flecker, Michael. “A 9th-Century Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters: Addendum.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Volume 37(2), 2008.

The open question though is what should happen to these 60,000 recovered objects. What about the next wreck fishermen are looting? These objects present a difficult dilemma. They weren’t taken in contravention of Indonesian law, these are legally-acquired objects. Indonesia may have done a poor job of protecting the underwater site, but in a world of finite resources, it seems to me being too critical of this exhibition sets a very high, nearly impossible to meet standard for exhibitions.

There may have been serious issues with the excavation undertaken by Seabed Excavations, the company hired by the Indonesian government to excavate the site. Yet, were those omissions sufficient to warrant this looting? Sufficent to preclude the display of these objects?This move may give the Smithsonian time to alleviate concerns of archaeologists, or more likely, may indicate a desire to avoid the entire controversy and cancel the exhibition without saying it outright.

Shipwreck Show Postponed – NYTimes.com

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


The Bost Arch in 1970

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

Looting Shipwrecks, Archaeology and the Smithsonian

Changsha bowls from the excavation

“To sell ceramics from a wreck like that makes them a hell of a lot more than selling sea cucumbers,”

So argues marine archaeologist Michael Flecker discussing the looting of perhaps the most significant shipwreck found in modern times. The wreck was discovered in 1998 by local fishermen while diving for sea cucumbers and was packed with some 60,000 glazed bowls, ewers and other ceramics. They were found in the wreck of an Arab dhow on its way from China to the Persian Gulf some 1,100 years ago. The Indonesian government did little to prevent the fishermen for taking objects from the cite and moved to hire Seabed Exploratiosn, a commercial salvage company to excavate the site, with the assistance of Flecker, who has published the excavation.

Archaeologists now are criticizing the exhibition of this material at the Smithsonian, claiming the commercial salvage amounts to looting. Kimberly Faulk of the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology says: “They were not excavated properly. They are indeed looted artifacts that were sold for profit,” which “sends a message that treasure hunting is OK.” That seems a very impractical stance to take. No one would argue that a concerted and extensive archaeological excavation would have been the best resolution here, or even if the Indonesian government had been able or willing to police the site of the wreck. yet short of those options, a removal of the objects with archaeologists yields some information right? What should be done with the objects now according to the archaeologists? What kinds of information might a longer extended excavation have recovered? I’d be interested in comparing the scientific results of this excavation with other more rigorous studies?

I mean, what should happen, should the 60,000 objects be returned to the ocean floor? Is there really no value in these objects without the context? If the advocates are using this for a chance to raise the profile of the problem of conservation and excavation of underwater archaeological sites, that seems a worthwhile endeavor, but doing so at the expense of common sense solutions seems to diminish their cause.

  1. Elizabeth Blair, From Beneath, A Smithsonian Shipwreck Controversy : NPR, http://www.npr.org/2011/05/04/135956044/from-beneath-a-smithsonian-shipwreck-controversy (last visited May 6, 2011).
  2. Flecker, Michael. “A 9th-Century Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. Volume 29(2), 2000.
  3. Flecker, Michael. “A 9th-Century Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters: Addendum.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Volume 37(2), 2008.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Embassy Cables Discuss Odyssey Marine, and a Nazi era Dispute

So the World is buzzing with all the revelations, mundane and otherwise, offered by the release of diplomatic cables via wikileaks. This has touched all manner of foreign and diplomatic relations, even cultural property and heritage issues. The Guardian has reprinted and summarized a series of recent cables which detail meetings between US officials and Spanish officials between 2007 and 2010. The various positions and points of concern related here really don’t come as much of a surprise. What is perhaps heartening to note is the importance of these issues at the highest levels of international relations. Nations take these disputes very seriously.

It is certainly possible to over-emphasize the importance of these, but both parties certainly seem to have very different priorities. In a 2008 cable, Spanish Culture Minister Molina is concerned with the then-emerging dispute with Odyssey Marine, while the American Ambassador focuses on Spain’s dispute with Claude Cassirer. As the embassy cable summarized,

The Ambassador stressed the USG’s interest in direct discussions between the Spanish government and Claude Cassirer, the AmCit claimant of a painting by Camille Pisarro (“Rue St. Honore”) in the Thyssen Museum. The Ambassador noted also that while the Odyssey and Cassirer claim were on separate legal tracks, it was in both governments’ interest to avail themselves of whatever margin for manuever they had, consistent with their legal obligations, to resolve both matters in a way that favored the bilateral relationship. The minister listened carefully to the Ambassador’s message, but he put the accent on the separateness of the issues. Molina said that no Spanish government could return the painting (if this is what the claimant wants). To begin with, while the minister presides over the board that manages the Thyssen Museum’s collection, the minister could not oblige the board to return the painting without a (Spanish) legal judgment. The minister added that paying compensation, as the British government has reportedly done in a number of cases, also posed legal problems.

  1. Giles Tremlett, WikiLeaks cables: Art looted by Nazis, Spanish gold and an embassy offer, The Guardian, December 8, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/dec/08/wikileaks-us-spain-treasure-art (last visited Dec 9, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Odyssey/Spain Dispute Headed to 11th Circuit Appeal

The dispute between Odyssey Marine Exploration and Spain over a shipwreck which was sunk in the early 19th Century will now likely be headed for appeal.  Federal District Court Judge Steven Merryday has issued an order that has adopted the Federal Magistrate’s Report and Recommendation.  In his order Judge Merryday stated a separate opinion would “add only length and neither depth nor clarity (and certainly not finality) to this dispute.”  Though this is a win for Spain, it also means the 11th circuit will now hear an appeal.   Back in the Spring, federal Magistrate Pizzo held the Federal District Court lacked jurisdiction over the dispute and the property should be returned to Spain. 

As I wrote then, though Odyssey Marine attempted to hide the true identity of the wreck, initially code-naming the wreck the Black Swan, there was enough information to conclude the coins came from the “Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes”, a warship which was carrying treasure back from Peru when it was sunk by the British off the Spanish coast in 1804. Spain, soon declared war on Great Britain, a point which may be lost in all this talk of the treasure. This treasure was an important piece of heritage, and all the talk of Odyssey’s share prices, and the rich treasure haul shouldn’t distract us from why these objects are protected, and why Spain fought so vigorously to have them declared the owner.This latest development then is not terribly surprising.  The case involves some complex issues of international admiralty law, and half a billion dollars in gold and silver coins.  It should be a fascinating appeal, as the 11th Circuit will set a precedent governing how these salvors can explore and remove historical objects from the ocean floor.

Odyssey Marine has a press release here.

James Thorner, Odyssey Marine’s treasure tangle with Spain moves to appeals court,  St. Petersburg Times, Dec. 23, 2009.

Richard Mullins, Sunken treasure case headed to federal appeals courtTampa Tribune, Dec. 23, 2009.  

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

Odyssey Marine Salvage Award

One nation’s underwater looters are another nation’s excavators-for-hire.  Dow Jones Newswires is reporting that Odyssey Marine will receive a $160,000 award for recovering artifacts for the U.K. from the English Channel:

Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. (OMEX) will receive a salvage award of $160,000 in a settlement with the U.K. government for artifacts recovered so far from a gunship wreck in the English Channel.The company – which uses advanced technology to comb the ocean’s depths for silver, gold and historical artifacts – also has filed a motion to vacate its admiralty arrest on the wreck in U.S. federal court. An admiralty arrest is a legal proceeding by which Odyssey seeks court recognition of its right to salvage a ship.Shares recently were up 14% at $2.33 in recent premarket trading. Still, that’s far below its all-time high of $8.32 a share in May 2007, shortly after a separate major discovery in the Atlantic Ocean, which led to a legal dispute with Spain. Shares lost two-thirds of their value in one day in June after Odyssey was recommended to return an estimated $500 million in sunken cargo. The case is still pending.The U.K. salvage award represents about 80% of the value of two cannon recovered from Admiral Balchin’s HMS Victory, a British Navy 100 gun ship lost in 1744 and submitted to the U.K. Receiver of Wreck. The company plans to contribute $75,000 of the award to support the National Museum of the Royal Navy.The company also will be involved in talks to determine approaches that should be adopted towards the wreck. Odyssey has booked losses in every year except one since it went public in 1997, but has loyal investors confident in its long-term prospects. The company generates revenue by selling artifacts and coins, from a partnership with the Discovery Channel and from leasing fees for traveling museum exhibits.  The HMS Victory is one of Odyssey’s significant finds and sank in a storm with 41 bronze cannons and other artifacts aboard.Odyssey in April had admiralty arrest on about a dozen sites.

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