Finders keepers? Spain claims sunken treasure

May 18, 2008

NPR reported this morning on Spain's battle to reclaim the treasure from a sunken Spanish vessel recovered in international waters in the Atlantic Ocean by Odyssey Marine Exploration of Tampa, FL.  The 19th century shipwreck contained some 17 tons in silver coins, cuff links and other personal items, and

other artifacts; it may be the most valuable treasure ever discovered.  Exact details of the discovery have yet to be revealed.

A Federal District Court in Tampa is reviewing Spain's claim to the treasure that Odyssey recovered.  Spain insists that Odyssey's claim to the warship Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes is immoral and illegal.  Spain compares the Nuestra Señora site to the grave sites of Gettysburg and the U.S.S. Arizona, as the sinking of Nuestra Señora precipitated Spain's entry into the Napoleonic wars.  Odyssey maintains, however, that they found no vessel and no human remains, just the cargo, and there is nothing to prove that it is the cargo of La Senora. In PACER, the federal court's password-protected electronic filing database (which is available free to the public in several federal depository libraries), you can review court filings for this case (8:07-cv-00614-SDM-MAP) as well as several others in which the Kingdom of Spain has filed a claim (ask a reference librarian for assistance if needed). 

So just what is the law pertaining to sunken treasures?  Finders keepers?  Return to rightful owner? 

The Yale Law Library has several books pertaining to the law of sunken treasure and cultural patrimony.  See, for example, Legal Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage: National and International Perspectives.  This book compares the laws, traditions, and perspectives of various countries, including the United States and Spain.  Note the Subject Headings at the bottom of the record: Cultural property -- Protection -- Law and legislation; Shipwrecks; Salvage; Treasure-trove; Underwater archaeology -- Law and legislation. Click on any of them to find more works pertaining to that topic. 

In comparison, see, The Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage: National Perspectives in Light of the UNESCO Convention 2001, for an international law focus and analysis.  Under the Subject Heading, underwater archaeology - law and legislation, you will find books in several languages other than English, including French German, Spanish, Russian and Italian.  Admiralty law also comes into play, specifically the Supplementary Admiralty RulesSee also, Admiralty and Maritime Law, available in print and electronically.

There are several international law databases you might try as well to find case law and law review articles.  See our Foreign and International Resources page for the plethora of electronic resources at your fingertips, or ask a reference librarian for assistance.

Published In: