A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Courts in Norfolk, Virginia, have made a precedent-setting decision regarding sovereign ownership of shipwrecks and issued an important order concerning the salvaging of Titanic.
While it has long been held that individual countries maintain ownership of their own sunken naval vessels, few countries have asserted their sovereignty over an early wreck. In 1996, however, Spain moved to claim the remains of the frigates La Galga, which sank in 1750, and Juno, which sank in 1802, both off the Virginia coast of Assateague Island (see "Spain's Day in Court"). The two wrecks had been claimed by Sea Hunt, Inc., a salvage firm headed by a Mr. Ben Benson. In April 1999 federal judge J. Calvitt Clarke, Jr., of the Eastern District Court in Norfolk ruled that while Spain did have rights to Juno, the 1763 Treaty of Paris, which ceded to Britain all North American Spanish possessions, included the wreck of La Galga. Spain decided to appeal the decision, citing a treaty signed in 1667 by which Spain and Britain declared neither would take possession of the other's sunken warships (Britain supported Spain in this). Meanwhile, Benson and Sea Hunt, Inc., which had permits from Virgina's Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) to search for and salvage the ships, were also unhappy about the ruling.
The case, as heard before the Court of Appeals in Norfolk (chief judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, 3rd) pitted Spain, backed by Britain and the U.S. Department of Justice, against Benson's Sea Hunt, Inc., backed by VCMR. Spain's claim was simply one of sovereignty over its sunken warships. Justice Department involvement was motivated by a desire to establish sovereignty over sunken U.S. naval vessels. For his part, Benson claims (according to a July 31 New York Times account) that the Spanish wrecks hold a half billion dollars in coins and precious metals. VCMR was in Sea Hunt's corner because it wanted to protect the state's rights to abandoned shipwrecks in its coastal waters as set forth in the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987. The Act makes no mention of naval vessels, whether of the U.S. or another country. VCMR's agreement with Sea Hunt, Inc., it should also be noted, provided that the state receive 25 percent of the proceeds of the sale of any treasure recovered.
In its decision this July, the court declared that both wrecks, Juno and La Galga, belonged to Spain. According to the New York Times, Judge Wilkinson's written comments indicate that abandonment of sovereign vessels (those owned by a country rather than by a private company or individual) must be explicit. If this decision is not appealed before the Supreme Court and stands as is, it means that such wrecks remain the national property and cannot be claimed and salvaged by treasure hunters.
A July 28 order by U.S. District Judge J. Calvitt Clarke, Jr., has scuttled plans by RMS Titanic, Inc., a Clearwater, Florida, salvage firm to cut into the hull of RMS Titanic to recover artifacts, namely an estimated $300 million in diamonds thought to have been left in a leather purser's pouch in the ship's front cargo hold.
The more than 5,000 artifacts recovered to date from the ship, which sank in 12,500 feet of water after colliding with an iceberg off Newfoundland shortly before midnight on April 14, 1912, have come from the vast debris field off the vessel's stern. The new salvage initiative by flies in the face of the international RMS Titanic Maritime Memorial Act of 1986, which specifies that the wreck remain undisturbed except for scientific research.
The push to speed up salvage efforts and to sell artifacts taken from the ship--which prompted the judge's order--are related to changes at the salvage company according to an August 1 Associated Press report, which states that RMS Titanic, Inc., stockholders replaced the company's managers last November with ones that pledged to move more quickly. On July 26, the company announced that it would sell diamonds, gold, and currency "of non-historical and archaeological significance that it hoped to recover." Two days later, Judge Clarke issued his order, repeating his ban on selling artifacts from the site.
Update: February 21, 2001
On Tuesday, February 20, 2001, the United States Supreme Court rejected appeals by both Virginia and Sea Hunt without comment, upholding last July's decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Spain, its ownership of the wrecks confirmed, wishes La Galga and Juno be left undisturbed as military gravesites. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had upheld a 1999 ruling in favor of Spain in Eastern District Court of Virginia.