Conservation Heritage United Kingdom

British naval heritage at risk of being sold off

Artefacts from HMS Victory could be auctioned to pay for its excavation by US company

Items such as this bronze cannon recovered in 2008 from the wreck of HMS Victory could be sold

Archaeologists are up in arms over the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD’s) decision to transfer the management of an 18th-century British warship to a newly formed charitable body, the Maritime Heritage Foundation, which has entered into an agreement with the US ocean salvage company, Odyssey Marine Exploration, to raise the wreck. They fear that the public/private partnership will lead to the deaccession and sale of artefacts from HMS Victory (1744) to raise money to pay the salvor.

“It’s inconceivable that the government can be so misguided and ignore the Unesco convention,” says Robert Yorke, the chairman of the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee. The 2001 convention states that underwater cultural heritage should not be commercially exploited. “Britain has become a laughing stock,” Yorke says. Joe Flatman, a senior lecturer at the University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, thinks no archaeologist should sell recovered artefacts. “The minute you sell materials you aren’t doing archaeology,” he says.

HMS Victory—not to be confused with Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, HMS Victory (1759)—sank during a storm in 1744 under the command of John Balchin, an ancestor of Lord Lingfield, the chair of the foundation. The wreck was discovered in the English Channel in 2008 by Odyssey more than 100km from the Channel Islands.

The MoD and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport launched a public consultation in 2010 to discuss the wreck. In January, the MoD announced it would hand over management of the site to the foundation.

While the foundation’s aims are in line with the management and preservation of the wreck, the lack of public information available about the organisation has raised concerns. As we went to press the foundation’s website was just a landing page and our attempts to contact Lord Lingfield by phone, email and through the foundation’s public relations firm, failed. “We don’t know what it is,” Flatman says. “If they’d said, ‘we’re a new foundation, here are our objectives and these are our advisers’, I’d have no problem.”

Some say that the consultation should have reopened to allow established heritage charities to apply. “A closed deal has been done,” Flatman says. The MoD says the foundation was the only charity to come forward and is well suited to manage the site. “We did not know about the foundation’s contract with Odyssey when we gifted the wreck, but it is unsurprising; we expected they would need to buy in expertise,” says an MoD spokesman, who adds that the foundation must seek permission from the Secretary of State for Defence before disturbing, excavating or disposing of the site.

The MoD’s decision not to issue a departmental minute in the House of Commons as is customary with gifts exceeding £250,000 has also raised eyebrows. The MoD says HMS Victory did not require one, although Yorke estimates that the ship’s value is over £250,000.

“Odyssey has more experience conducting archaeological excavations on deep-ocean shipwrecks than anyone in the world,” says Odyssey’s chief executive, Greg Stemm. “Any deaccessioned artefacts will first be offered to museums before any duplicates are deaccessioned to private collectors.”

“The [Unesco] convention is a guide, not a bible, and we have a moral obligation to raise the ship,” says the director of Wreck Watch International, Sean Kingsley, who advises Odyssey.

Stemm says Odyssey is also in discussions with other organisations: “People are realising the public/private partnership is a valid way to manage our underwater cultural heritage without spending public money.”

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18 Jan 13
15:21 CET


As a direct descendant of Admiral Sir John Balchen, who died with his entire crew aboard his flagship HMS Victory, I wish to bring to your attention, a website that expresses the disgust of the descendants of the Admiral, at the commercial exploitation of the wreck. Also via the site we wish to clarify that Sir Robert Balchen, Lord Lingfield is not as has been reported, a descendant of the Admiral. Lord Lingfield's (a senior conservative politician) and his Maritime Heritage Foundation, were gifted the wreck, despite having no maritime archaeological or funding at the time.

23 May 12
15:42 CET


Yeah, your all missing the point. The objections aren't to raising the wreck, but to selling the archaeology. Archaeology is owned by all and should not be sold. It is the governments responsibility to preserve and manage, they are simply passing the buck to the private sector and essentially starting to privatise the nations heritage. If just one of you was actually an archaeologist you too would be disgusted by the idea, but you are plainly treasure hunters and just want the spoils. The ship has to be raised, but at what cost?

17 May 12
20:51 CET


Professional jealousy is springing to mind. Odyssey sound like they have ticked all the boxes and a quick visit to their website confirms they have a professional pedigree as long as your arm. I am sure these academics mean well but if we hung around and waited for them to make up their minds the site would be further destroyed by fishing and erosion - I am diver and I have seen how quickly sites can erode. If they actually care about the site they would want to get down there as soon as possible and get everything up. They can't do that, Odyssey can, so their response is that if we can't have it nobody can and that is crime against the taxpayer and the public both of whom are set to benefits from such wonderful recoveries.

17 May 12
15:21 CET


Big problem: Only Odyssey knows where the wreck is!!!!

16 May 12
22:46 CET


I truly believe the many historical and,yes, sometimes valuable artifacts and treasures under the sea should be salvaged for all to see and appreciate. We would not have the King Tut treasures to admire if Carter was prevented from recovering them decades ago. I feel the technology, care, respect and professionalism Odyssey Marine has exercised in this instance deserves our vote of confidence in the handling of The Victory.

16 May 12
22:46 CET


The archaeologists harp on about 'preservation in situ' mainly because they themselves won't take the risk to come up with the vast amount of money it takes to undertake a recovery of this kind. The archaeologists think they have a monopoly over history and when someone else does what they won't, they're up in arms! What hypocrites! They should take a look at what little is left of The Titanic after only 100 years, to see how effective 'preservation in situ' is in reality. Good luck to Odyssey Marine exploration for putting their money where their mouths are and saving this fast decaying heritage for future generations!

16 May 12
21:10 CET


This site has already borne the brunt of fisheries with trawlers drawing their nets across. The most environmentally friendly, history friendly and fact friendly, is to recover using the OMEX specialists to bring it all up...including the human remains and provide perspective to ALL people..not just those that can afford to hide their collective "educated" heads in the sand and leave it there. The common person has the right to know how these things look, act feel and touch. Not just some PO'd academic with his underwear in a bunch!

16 May 12
19:15 CET


This group of misguided "heritage protectors" would rather the wreck lay on the bottom of the channel forever. The cannon and equipment from the ship will be displayed in museums and our children will have some tangible artifacts that will let them relive the past. Would it be better to leave it to the fishes? I vote we bring it up, and if someone makes a profit off the endeavor, good for them. They are risking their ships, equipment and crew to bring us a bit of history that we can see and touch.

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