There is little that compares with the prospect of claiming a lost treasure hoard to set the pale flame of avarice alight. So when the publicly-traded treasure hunting firm Odyssey Marine Exploration announced on May 18th that it had discovered a sunken colonial-era ship somewhere in the Atlantic with 17 tons of gold and silver coins aboard worth $500 million, it captured the attention of more than just coin collectors. On May 29th the government of Spain has filed a lawsuit asserting its right to any treasure taken from a Spanish ship or from Spanish territorial waters. CNN reports:
'"Odyssey Marine Exploration has been requested in a letter to provide information concerning the identity of the ship and the material recovered, and has not responded with the details we were asking for," said Susana Tello, Culture Ministry spokeswoman.
"Spain has decided to go to (the) courts to claim its right in case the discovery is Spanish," she added.'
Odyssey Marine has code-named this shipwreck "Black Swan", which I'm certain they are aware is the name of a fictional pirate ship in a novel by Raphael Sabatini, and also a grand swashbuckler film from 1942. They say only that it lies in international waters about 40 miles of the SW tip of England where they need to be very secretive to maintain control of the site. If the vessel turns out to be Spanish, however, Spain has been successful defending its interests in treasure recovered from two other vessels lost in international waters. It sounds like the question of whether it is within England or France's territorial waters is less at issue than whether the vessel was Spanish, though under French law any wreck within its territorial waters must be reported to authorities and any artifacts are protected.
In announcing their find, Odyssey said:
"Because the shipwreck was found in a lane where many colonial-era vessels went down, there is still some uncertainty about its nationality, size and age", (Odyssey co-chairman Greg) Stemm said, although evidence points to a specific known shipwreck..."We have treated this site with kid gloves and the archaeological work done by our team out there is unsurpassed," Odyssey CEO John Morris said. "We are thoroughly documenting and recording the site, which we believe will have immense historical significance."
The laws of salvage and abandoned property are beyond my scope of expertise so the following is idle speculation on my part, but one does wonder how you recover 17 tons of treasure from the ocean floor with kid gloves (on robot arms, presumably). The historian in me worries that the archaeological value of the wreck may be compromised by the salvage activity, particularly if positive identification of the wreck is more in the interest of the plaintiff in the suit than the salvage company. If the approximate location of the wreck has been reported accurately, it also seems to me that it would not be terribly difficult for a private investigator in a light plane to shadow the treasure hunters and determine its precise location, though Odyssey reports it has already recovered the entire hoard of coins so the time for that has probably passed.
In any case, there are high stakes involved, largely pecuniary but also archaeological, and I should perhaps practice what I preach. As a conservationist involved in preserving land I am willing to concede that there is such thing as a conservation development and that private investment dollars could be able accomplish what philanthropic dollars cannot in some instances. Why then, do I resist the notion that a for-profit treasure hunting outfit could do excellent and appropriate archeology and finance its work through the sale of treasure and certain artifacts? One reason is its raison d'etre. Archeology is secondary to salvage in this business model. Once the identify of the wreck is determined - or perhaps it is determined that it cannot be definitively proved - what further incentive is there to do world-class archeology amid the pieces of eight? Academic archaeologists do not routinely glean everything of value from their finds. They leave many things in situ and much of their study area undisturbed. There is too much extraction here for my taste, too much Indiana Jones.
That's the mature, responsible adult in me speaking. The kid in me, however, agrees with my cousin; " There is nothing more fun than buried treasure...unless it's unburied treasure."
More: Odyssey's position on claims made by other individuals or entities:
"If we are able to confirm that some other entity has a legitimate legal claim to this shipwreck when - and if - the identity is confirmed, we intend to provide legal notice to any and all potential claimants. Even if another entity is able to prove that it has an ownership interest in the shipwreck and/or cargo and that they had not legally abandoned the shipwreck, Odyssey would apply for a salvage award from the Admiralty Court. In cases such as this, salvors are typically awarded up to 90% of the recovery.
We do believe that most shipwrecks that we recover, including the " Black Swan ", will likely result in claims by other parties. Many will be spurious claims, but we anticipate that there might be some legitimate ones as well. In the case of the " Black Swan ", it is the opinion of our legal counsel that even if a claim is deemed to be legitimate by the courts, Odyssey should still receive title to a significant majority of the recovered goods."
More still: According to an article in Lakeland Florida's The Ledger on-line:
"Spain thinks the wreck may be that of the Merchant Royal, a British ship that Spanish authorities think was operating under contract with the King of Spain before its sinking in 1641."
Curiouser and Curiouser: (7/11/2007) : If it's the Merchant Royal, a 17th century vessel, how come the edges of the coins are expertly milled?
"To mask the origin of the treasure, pictures released by Odyssey of the coins have the imprint on them digitally obscured to prevent identification, although the edges are expertly milled. Spanish coins began being produced in such a way only by the middle of the 18th century, 100 years after the Merchant Royal sank."