Take it or leave it

Well that’s certainly the question isn’t it? While exploring a new wreck you suddenly come across a (insert artifact of your dreams here:  port hole, lantern, ships bell, or silver coin). Your heart skips a beat and you can’t believe your eyes as the reality sets in. You wave over your buddy who films it in place and once documented, you reach out to touch it but stop and think, can I take it or should I leave it?  This is can be a legal, moral, social question, or” D”, all of the above. With the recent media attention to the recovery of huge amounts of treasure from deep water shipwrecks, the questions of wreck ownership, abandonment and legal variations of the children’s adage “finders keepers, losers weepers” are brought  to world courts on a near regular basis.  Don’t be so quick to laugh at the premise of “finders keepers”, it has been pretty much a globally recognized component of admiralty law since approximately 1160 AD and is the heart of salvers right to reap the rewards of their hard won discoveries and the lawful salvage of abandoned ships and cargos.artifacts

Legal Issues

Before you take that goodie there is a lot to consider,

  • Was the vessel lost one year, one hundred years, or five-hundred years ago and what “exactly” constitutes a vessel’s abandonment?
  • Was the wreck a warship or private vessel?
  • Was it lost in some sovereign country’s territorial sea or sunk far from shore, in what is considered international waters?

Legal policy can be clearly written but not always clearly defined, and one country’s interpretations of law or claims of ownership may not be honored or respected in other country’s territorial waters. Many countries consider a shipwreck “abandoned” when an arbitrary period of time has expired in which no salvage attempt has been made, (usually between fifty and one-hundred years). Conversely; (and to their benefit), most governments  will claim ownership of these same abandoned wrecks (in their territorial water) when they have been underwater between fifty to one-hundred and fifty years, claiming them as “historic” cultural treasures, regardless of the vessel’s nationality, origin or cargo. For wreck salvers, it would appear that the clock ticks quickly…find it, (legally) grab it, or lose it.

When it comes to military shipwrecks, (including aircraft, parts of ships and/or military equipment) whether lost in battle, storm, accidently, or intentionally scuttled, in international or sovereign territorial water, these remain the property of their government in perpetuity and are never considered an abandoned wreck, even if government that owned it is now defunct. A case in point would be German vessels sunk during both WWI and WWII; the successive German government has jurisdiction and becomes ward and owner.  Most governments respect the sovereignty of other nation’s military shipwrecks, and some cases afford them special protection. The only exception is when a military wreck is specifically stricken from the record and sold off by their respective government for scrap or salvage, (although the United States no longer makes this distinction, even if the derelict wreck sank on the way to the scrapyard). If any military personal perished in the loss, then the site is further classified as a war grave and afforded special protection from salvers and even visiting civilian divers.

Can you take it?

Oregon 2No apologies here, I am an avid collector of artifacts from shipwrecks. For me it was a natural transition as a young man from spear fisherman to artifact collector, it was just a different form of hunting underwater. In the late seventies and early eighties, shipwreck diving and artifact collecting in the New York and New Jersey area of the US,  was in effect “the wild west” and the rule amongst wreck divers was “he who floats it owns it”.  Oil tankers, freighters, schooners, tug boats and passenger liners all provided lobster, crockery and brass artifacts for those so inclined to locate collect and extricate them from the wrecks. It wasn’t until 1998, when a local wreck that had yielded many artifacts to local divers, the USS San Diego, (a WWI wreck abandoned by the government and sold for scrap), was placed on the National Register of Historic places and declared off limits to artifact collecting, that the specter of government intervention reared its bureaucratic head and “law” was injected into my hobby of picking up bits and bobs. Now fourteen year later, I look around and see quite a different social and moral outlook in the diving community regarding the collection of artifacts from abandoned shipwrecks