Monday, December 7, 2015

Who Owns Sunken Treasure


The New York Times had a recent piece on the legal morass that surrounds the ownership of sunken ships:

The Spanish galleon San José was overloaded with 200 passengers and 700 tons of cargo on a summer night in 1631 when it smashed into a rock off the Pacific coast of Panama, spilling silver coins and bars into the Gulf of Panama. More than 400,000 coins and at least 1,417 bars were lost over a 40-mile trail.

Four hundred years later, that shipwreck has become one of the latest to land in a legal quagmire over who should have the rights to historic artifacts trapped under the sea. This one involves the United Nations, the United States Department of Homeland Security, the government of Panama and Americans accused of being pirates.

At issue is whether private companies should be able to claim and profit from historic treasures. Those questions are of particular interest to businesses in South Florida at a time when technology is making it easier to find and recover sunken loot. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that there are over 1,000 shipwrecks in the Florida Keys alone.

[T]he industry is engaged in a battle with academic marine archaeologists and Unesco, the Paris-based United Nations agency that tries to protect cultural treasures around the world. Critics say buried coins and loot should be studied and preserved in a museum, not sported around an investor’s neck.

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