Cache of sunken coins returned to Spain
The US Supreme Court denied a Florida marine salvage company's appeal over $500m treasure from a sunken Spanish ship
By Emily Sharpe. Web only
Published online: 14 March 2012
A trove of gold and silver coins valued at $500m has been handed over to Spain following the US Supreme Court’s refusal to hear an emergency appeal from the Florida-based ocean salvage company, Odyssey Marine Exploration, which had asked the court to block a lower court decision that ordered the company to hand over the treasure. Odyssey had been locked in a legal battle over the cache since it was salvaged from international waters around 100 miles off the Straits of Gibraltar in March 2007. The case has drawn ire from archaeologists and the heritage community who say that treasure hunting contradicts the 2001 Unesco Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage which states that this heritage “shall not be traded, sold, bought or bartered as commercial goods”.
Odyssey sought permission from Spain to recover and sell treasures from shipwrecks of interest to Spain in 2006. Spain declined the request and when the company sent the trove of around 594,000 coins by air to the US immediately after its recovery, the Spanish navy forced the vessel into the port of Algeciras and arrested the ship’s captain, who was released shortly thereafter. In the court cases that followed, Odyssey maintained that what they named the “Black Swan” treasure was from a commercial vessel and claimed the trove under the “finders keepers” rule of law, while Spain exercised its sovereign immunity rights over the treasure, asserting it came from the Spanish warship Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes which was sunk by the British navy in 1804 on its return journey from Peru. In 2009, a federal court in Tampa ruled in favour of Spain (The Art Newspaper, July/August 2009, p8). Odyssey then appealed against the decision.
Profiting from heritage
“Any attempt to profit from underwater cultural heritage is disturbing. It goes against Unesco’s 2001 convention that says commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage is unacceptable,” says Richard Leventhal, a professor, curator and director of the Cultural Heritage Centre at the University of Pennsylvania, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. “It would be a major loss if this treasure was sold and dispersed,” says Damian Robinson, the director of the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology at Oxford University’s Institute for Archaeology. “The significance of this case lies not only in the scale of the material excavated, but in the issue of who owns the heritage and what they should be able to do with it. Spain is reasserting its right to its sunken heritage, but not everyone will take Spain’s lead.”
Others, including Joe Flatman, a senior lecturer at University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, while ethically opposed to salvage operations, see ambiguities. “I profit from archaeology as an academic and some would argue that this is a grey area—selling knowledge versus selling material recovered from these sites,” he says. Flatman feels that the complicated laws are the real issue. “International sea law is impossibly vague,” he says, noting that the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was designed as an international economic agreement for shipping, and heritage just happens to fall within its rubric.
According to Melinda MacConnel, Odyssey’s vice president and general council, the court’s findings “go against all legal precedent”. Speaking to The Art Newspaper prior to turning over the treasure to Spain in late February, she said that the company is “considering all legal options”. “Odyssey voluntarily brought the coins into the US admiralty court system, the only court in the world which has so far provided any protection for shipwrecks in international waters,” she says.
“Sadly, we believe this case will have a negative effect on Spanish underwater cultural heritage. It does not encourage those with finds to report them,” says MacConnel. She cites the success of the UK’s Portable Antiquity Scheme, which rewards finders for their discoveries, in increasing the number of finds reported.
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