Maritime Law on Sunken Treasure
Understanding maritime laws.
Maritime law is a complex and evolving field that regulates the rights and obligations of parties involved in maritime activities, such as navigation, commerce, exploration, and salvage. One of the most fascinating and controversial aspects of maritime law is the legal status of sunken treasure, which refers to any valuable cargo or artifacts that are recovered from shipwrecks or other underwater sites. Sunken treasure can include gold, silver, jewels, coins, ceramics, weapons, and historical documents. The main question that arises when dealing with sunken treasure is: who owns it? The answer depends on several factors, such as the location, nature, and origin of the wreck, the identity and intention of the finder, and the applicable national and international laws. Generally speaking, there are two main legal doctrines that govern the ownership of sunken treasure: the law of salvage and the law of finds. The difference between salvage and finds is based on the concept of abandonment. The law of salvage applies when the original owner of the wreck has not abandoned it and still has a legal interest in it. The law of finds applies when the original owner of the wreck has relinquished or lost his or her legal interest in it, either by express declaration or by lapse of time. Under the law of salvage, anyone who voluntarily assists a vessel in distress or danger is entitled to a reward from the owner of the vessel or its cargo. The finder of the wreck, known as the salvor, does not acquire ownership of the treasure, but only a maritime lien that gives him or her right to claim a portion of its value from the owner. The amount of the salvage award depends on various factors, such as the degree of risk, difficulty, and success of the salvage operation and the value of the property saved. Typically, the salvage award ranges from 10% to 25% of the value of the property, but it can be as high as 50% in exceptional cases. Under the law of finds, whoever finds an abandoned or unclaimed property acquires ownership of it. The finder of the wreck, known as the finder, acquires full ownership of the treasure, subject to any superior claims by sovereign states or other parties. The finder does not have to pay any compensation to the original owner or anyone else. The distinction between salvage and finds is not always clear-cut, and often leads to disputes and litigation between different claimants. For example, in 1985, a US company called Odyssey Marine Exploration discovered a Spanish galleon called Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes that sank off the coast of Portugal in 1804 with a cargo of gold and silver coins worth an estimated $500 million. Odyssey claimed ownership of the treasure under the law of finds, arguing that Spain had abandoned the wreck. Spain contested Odyssey's claim under the law of salvage, arguing that it had never relinquished its sovereign rights over the wreck. After a long legal battle, a US court ruled in favor of Spain in 2012 and ordered Odyssey to return the treasure to Spain. Another example is the case of HMS Victory, a British warship that sank in 1744 with a cargo of gold and silver coins worth an estimated $1 billion. In 2008, a UK company called Odyssey Marine Exploration discovered the wreck in international waters near the Channel Islands. Odyssey claimed ownership of the treasure under the law of finds, arguing that Britain had abandoned the wreck. Britain contested Odyssey's claim under the law of salvage, arguing that it had never relinquished its sovereign rights over the wreck. The case was settled in 2012 when Odyssey agreed to transfer the treasure to Britain in exchange for a salvage award. The legal status of sunken treasure is not only influenced by national laws, but also by international conventions and agreements that aim to protect underwater cultural heritage from looting and destruction. One such agreement is the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, which defines underwater cultural heritage as "all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character which have been partially or totally under water" for at least 100 years. The convention establishes a set of rules and principles for underwater archaeology and conservation, such as prohibiting commercial exploitation, requiring prior authorization for any intervention, ensuring scientific documentation and public access, and promoting international cooperation. The convention also recognizes the sovereign rights of states over wrecks located within their territorial waters or contiguous zone, and encourages states to protect wrecks located beyond their jurisdiction through bilateral or multilateral agreements. In conclusion, maritime law on ocean sunken treasure is a fascinating and complex topic that involves multiple legal doctrines, interests, and actors. The ownership of sunken treasure depends on various factors that may be subject to different interpretations and applications by different courts and authorities. The legal status of sunken treasure is also affected by international conventions and agreements that aim to protect underwater cultural heritage from looting and destruction.