Largest Historical Shipwreck


Recently, Odyssey Marine Exploration announced they had recovered 500,000 silver and gold coins from a shipwreck which may have been 40 miles from Land’s End in Cornwall. It may be a record for the The BBC has a story here and video here. The Daily Mail has a story here. Odyssey have not released the location of the wreck for security and legal reasons. The treasure has been stored in an “undisclosed location” in the US. The value of the coins recovered could approach half a billion dollars.

Odyssey stresses it is the legal owner of the coins, and that it conducted the salvage by “diligently follow[ing] archaeological protocols using advanced robotic technology, and the artifacts are now undergoing a meticulous conservation process”. I’ll confess a profound ignorance of how much archaeologists can learn from shipwrecks. However Will Anderson over at the assemblage expresses some well-founded skepticism about the archaeological merits of the salvage, “Whether what Odyssey Marine Exploration does can be termed archaeology is debatable”. And in response to claims that the archaeological protocols were followed, “So we shall soon be seeing a full and thorough excavation report published, the site will be assessed and managed, and the loot will not be flogged over the internet”? Chances of that seem unlikely, as Odyssey has already sold coal from another shipwreck, the SS Republic.

Peter Spiro over at Opinio Juris summarizes the current state of shipwreck recovery law in International waters, and ties in the difficulties with regulation of underwater cultural heritage to a new book by Dan Drezner. Drezner postulates a “club standards” situation where there is low conflict among great powers and high conflict between the great powers and other actors. Spiro says “that seems to be what has emerged in the context of treasure hunting, with the great powers reaching ad hoc agreements on particular finds (as was the case with the Titanic), at the same time as they also handle the issue through domestic law. The universalizing option of an open-to-all multilateral treaty gets left by the wayside”.

That brings us to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. JH Merryman has been a very vocal critic of the Convention, because it completely precludes commercial exploitation, as was the case here. 14 Nations have signed on. The convention has received little support from most European nations and the United States. Here is an excellent overview of the Convention from Robert Blumberg, who led the US delegation to the UNESCO negotiations. As it stands now, there is no comprehensive law regulating wrecks found in International waters, which begins 24 miles out to sea. Regulation which does exist comes about through multilateral agreements for individual wrecks and bilateral agreements, or domestic legislation.

Clearly, this record recovery will anger some nations, and may provide some new impetus towards forming a workable convention for maritime states, perhaps by amending the UNESCO UCH convention.

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

Massive Antiquities Arrests in Spain

Over the weekend in Spain, the civil guard in Cadiz announced arrests of three individuals alleged to have patrolled the shallow waters off Cadiz. They used an underwater robot to salvage objects from ancient shipwrecks, yielding treasures as varied as Roman anchors, Phoenician pottery, and bullets from the Battle of Trafalgar. The Guardian report has labeled the individuals “pirates”. Though their behavior violates Spanish law, I’m not sure we can call them pirates in the conventional sense. A number of companies legally salvage wrecks in other waters. Generally, English and American admiralty law rewards salvors. When property is lost at sea, the rescuer can claim a salvage award on the property. That doesn’t appear to be the case for the defendants in Cadiz though. I would guess that the defendants were patrolling within Spain’s territorial waters. An important issue at the criminal trial will likely be how the prosecutors can prove the objects were taken within Spain’s waters. Of course, their claim seems to be helped by the fact that the individuals were hiding the objects in hidden compartments in their oxygen tanks. The criminal law probably triggers as soon as the objects were brought ashore

Without knowing too much about Spanish Admiralty law, Spain has outlawed salvage in this area, and with good reason. The port of Cadiz has been a bustling port for millennium, and has “the country’s largest shipwreck cemetery, holding an estimated €1.5bn in sunken gold, silver and pearls, according to Juan Manuel Gracia, president of the Association for the Recovery of Spanish Galleons.” No wonder then that Spain is attempting to restrict salvage in the area. As technology is increasingly opening the depths to exploitation, these disputes are likely to increase. Spain and England are currently disputing the wreck of the Sussex, a British warship which sank with $4 billion worth of gold in 1694.

It seems that the underwater treasure hunters had ties to others as well, because there are a number of reports today that 52 individuals have been arrested throughout Andalusia. The arrests seem to be linked to the three in Cadiz. The Guardian reports that “A team of 200 officers searched 68 flats to confiscate the pieces, many of which were bound for foreign collectors. The ring sent coins and small items through the mail. Police found larger pieces destined for Faro, Portugal, where they were to be flown to Belgium.” Reuters has a wire report as well. The reports boast that over 300,000 objects were recovered. That’s a staggering sum, and one wonders how many of the recoveries were of high quality. However, this image of recovered mosaics indicates that the authorities didn’t just recover anchors and bullets.

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