25 February 2012

Who owns sunken treasure?

Mitch Stacy for Associated Press (AP) has reported that 17-tons of silver and gold coins salvaged from the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, a Spanish galleon sunk by British warships in the Atlantic, off Portugal, while sailing back from South America in 1804, has been returned to Spain.

Legal action in the United States denied ownership of the find to both the Peruvian government which argued the material was sourced from Peru and the salvage company Odyssey Marine Exploration. See also Newsday and El País (in Spanish - with excellent photographic and video coverage).

Stacy reported that "Peruvian cultural authorities say their country's legal case would have been stronger if it had signed the 2001 U.N. Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, which states that countries of origin have priority in deciding the fate of cultural artifacts found in shipwrecks". However, the text of the convention does not appear to regulate the ownership of wrecks or sovereignty rights.

While Spain has asserted its legal right to the find, surely Peru would also have some moral rights.

When it comes to sunken treasure, it is not a case of finders keepers.