In a recent article, I enumerated some of the many undiscovered shipwrecks around the world and how much treasure is down there. Turns out there’s a lot. And though the prospect of treasure hunting sounds like the stuff of dreams and it lends itself to a lifestyle of adventure, it is not without its risks. And, no, I’m not talking about shark attacks or modern day pirates. I’m talking about something even more insidious and life-threatening—government intervention.
Despite what you might see in movies, one cannot just purchase some scuba gear, decipher a treasure map, collect his or her treasure, and live happily (and luxuriously) ever after. There are rules on the high seas, salvage rights, and other ownership rights to be considered. And each salvage operation is different. The ship where the country is from wants a stake. So does the country where the ship wrecked. And the diver who discovered the treasure is also entitled to a share. So, back to the burning question, who gets to keep the booty?
The old adage ‘Finders Keepers’ does not apply. Sounds unfair on its face, but there’s a good reason. Some of the items lying on the bottom of the world’s oceans are of tremendous historical importance, both to the country of origin and the country where the wreck is located. Take one recent tale out of Florida for example. American treasure hunters found $500 million in silver and gold coins in the 1804 wreck of the Spanish warship Mercedes 3,000 feet deep in international waters. The Spanish government immediately took the adventurers to court and won the judgment. Now the Americans, a group called Odyssey Marine, has to surrender the whole lot to Spain. The case even went to the Supreme Court, where the justices chose to decline the case, stating that the ship’s remains and its cargo were the sovereign property of Spain.
Treasure Hunting Vs. Salvaging
One of the most important factors in determining who gets to keep what from a shipwreck is whether it is a salvage operation or a treasure hunting expedition. During a salvage op, the owner of the sunken items is known, and the salvager is required to present the discovered valuables to said owner for compensation in return. With treasure hunting, often the owner of the wreckage is unclear since much of the treasure is so old that no one is left alive to claim it. But, as the above example shows, even treasure that was lost centuries ago can be disputed and claimed successfully by the country of origin.
Where in the World?
Probably the most vital part of the puzzle when it comes to ownership is where the wreck was found. You’ve heard the old real estate mantra, location, location, location…well, it cannot be any more pertinent here. Due to the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987, “the U.S. government and state governments have the right to claim any abandoned shipwreck that is embedded in ground and submerged in U.S. waters up to three nautical miles from the U.S. coastline, as well as any abandoned shipwrecks found in interior navigable waters in the U.S. and its possessions.” (Yahoo.com) That means, as a treasure hunter, you might want to focus on shipwrecks several miles away from the US coast or other waterways. Same goes for most other sovereign countries. In short, stick to international waters.
Laws of the Land Sea
Even if you manage to locate the wreckage of a sunken ship in international waters, the potential treasure hidden inside of it may still not free game. To stay on the safe and legal side, you have to follow salvage laws and the law of that particular find. Not all salvage operations are equal. Some sites, even in waters not claimed by a state, are subject to certain laws of ownership. And, under international law, anyone who finds a wreck must report it. Hiding a shipwreck or its cargo is a crime, and you, the finder, “may be deprived of the whole or part of the payment due … if the salvor has been guilty of fraud or other dishonest conduct,” According to the 1989 International Convention on Salvage. While “dishonest conduct” isn’t plainly defined, if you surreptitiously recover treasure from a ship that has clear and stated ownership, it certainly would be seen as fraud and you would lose your fortune.
So here’s the basic rule of sunken treasure: If you find it in international waters, and there’s no one to claim ownership, then you just might be the rightful owner of a priceless booty!
Sources: csmonitor.com | cbc.ca | yahoo.com | popularmechanics.com | iol.co.za