Treasure, Salvage and Archaeology


John Ward Anderson has an informative update on the ongoing dispute between Spain and Odyssey Marine in today’s Washington Post.

I’ve written on this before, but here’s a short recap. In May it was announced that $500 million worth of silver and gold was discovered from a wreck Odyssey has code named the Black Swan. The discovery is probably the most valuable underwater find yet discovered. Speculation abounds that the wreck could be the Merchant Royal which sank off Cornwall, or the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, a Spanish frigate sunk by the British Navy in 1804 known to be carrying a great deal of silver.

Spain suspected Odyssey Marine had discovered one of her ships, and brought a legal action against the company in Federal District Court in Florida. Later in July, one of Odyssey’s vessels, the Ocean Alert, was forced to remain in port in the Spanish port of Algeciras before releasing it. Another vessel, the Odyssey Explorer, has been detained in Gibraltar because Spanish authorities have warrants to detain it if it leaves Britain’s waters. This is a difficult issue as the territorial waters in the area are open to a great deal of dispute.

In the Washington Post, we get some of the comments of the interested parties. Here’s what Greg Stemm, co-founder of Odyssey Marine had to say:

Shipwrecks are a resource like any other resource, and every other resource — scientific, cultural or otherwise, whether it’s coins, whether it’s stamps, whether it’s antiques — it’s all owned, bought, sold and traded all the time.

That’s one perspective certainly, but many archaeologists are very critical of commercial exploitation of historic wrecks. James Goold, Spain’s counsel gives his client’s view:

Everything points to Odyssey having known exactly what ship they were looking for and having then decided to claim it was unidentified,… The law is quite clear that an owner of a ship remains the owner after it sinks, and a sovereign nation has a right to protect its cultural heritage, … Spain has cultural heritage laws, and Spain has a program of underwater archaeology, and there are projects Spain undertakes by itself or with archaeological institutes for the public benefit, but not so someone can scoop up gold coins and sell them…

At present, the situation is untenable, as advances in technology make it easier to discover these wrecks. Also, the state of admiralty law is essentially just finders keepers. That does not seem likely to change unless the archaeology and heritage lobby can effectively negotiate with the interest of commercial exploitation. Perhaps some archaeological research is better than nothing?

The dispute will be interesting to watch unfold. If the vessel is Spanish, Spain may have rights to it if it is not deemed abandoned. However Odyssey will likely be entitled to some kind of salvage award, as admiralty rewards finders. Admiralty law assumes that a salvor should be rewarded for risking her life and property to rescue the property of another. From what I remember of my admiralty course in law school, it is likely that because this sunken treasure has been lost for a great deal of time, Odyssey Marine will likely get the majority of the value of the property. The ultimate determination is up to the judge to determine though, and will sometimes depend on how dangerous or how much skill was needed to find the wreck.

The 2001 UNESCO Convention on Underwater Cultural Heritage (UCH) precludes commercial exploitation of wrecks altogether. In an ideal world that rule might work. But archaeological resources–at sea or on land– are seldom left alone, and few nations have signed on to the UCH convention. I think archaeologists are understandably frustrated, because they know how much such a wreck could tell us, and we don’t really have any way of knowing what Odyssey is doing with the wreck.

A convention or a policy which only incorporates the view of the archaeologists will always fail, and that is the biggest problem with the UCH Convention. Major market nations, and historic superpowers with historic wrecks (like nuclear subs, warships, etc.) will not sign on. Ideally a pragmatic solution must be reached, similar to the Portable Antiquities Scheme in England & Wales or the Scottish Treasure Trove system whereby admiralty law should incorporate archaeological value into salvage disputes. At present the only value is that of the objects rescued. But the archaeological record has value as well, and perhaps that should be quantified as well. Salvors could be punished for destroying or failing to document the record. That will take legislation or treaties. Judges cannot inject such a requirement. The first step will be to build a consensus for action. In the interim, the simple finders keepers rule will prevail.

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

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