Guest Column: The politics of treasure

Gabriel Rosen

Harvard Political Review, Harvard U. via UWIRE

In 2007, the treasure-hunting company Odyssey made a spectacular discovery, locating the wreck of the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, a Spanish frigate laced with over $500 million dollars worth of gold coins.  This historical and potentially profitable find was quickly overshadowed, however, by a prolonged legal battle over the possession of the treasure, a case just recently settled in favor of the Spanish government.

Of course, the issue of disputed possession is nothing new in the field of archaeology.  The primacy of possession versus “finders-keepers” ideology has proved both complex and contentious, leading to a number of diplomatic disputes between various European countries (notably England, France, and Germany) and the former colonies from which these goods were extracted.  England, for example, is still in possession of countless Greek and Egyptian artifacts, despite having recently returned a few gems such as King Tut’s burial mask.  When sorting out these possession claims, a question of time arises; did the statue of limitations for ownership already expire on these goods if they’ve been lost for a certain amount of time? What if the government of a country initially gave permission to another government to take the artifacts? Did they have that right? On top of this, there is the issue of items that reflect the cultural heritage of one country, but are located within the borders of another (i.e. Greek ruins in Turkey, or Roman ruins in Lebanon).

Such issues are complicated enough for discoveries made on land, when items are found clearly on the soil of one country, but with shipwrecks, counterclaims that started as complex can become almost impossible to sort out.  In the case of the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, for example, the gold coins were recovered in international waters, so no country had territorial claims.  Furthermore, like today, not all ships actually belonged to a country 200 years ago; they were often the property of private merchants, meaning that countries, like Spain, could lack a legitimate claim in many circumstances.  In addition, with regards to the latest legal battle, Odyssey argued that these coins shouldn’t belong to the Spanish, regardless of the current legitimacy of the government’s claim, as these gold coins originally came about as a result of Spain’s unjust exploitation of the colonies in America.

The last and most hotly debated issue has been that of identification.  The inherently decrepit state of an ancient shipwreck makes a positive identification of the ship possible.  This was the most hotly contended issue in the Atlanta and Tampa courts where the trial took place.  In the end, it was ruled that a ship need not be conclusively identified in order to determine its national origin, a determination that precluded Odyssey from keeping the gold-laced shipwreck.

While this decision may be a short-term victory for Spain, in the long term it creates an incentive problem that may drastically inhibit the future discovery of archaeological treasures.  Treasure recovery, after all, is extremely expensive and would not be something into which the austerity-stricken Spanish government, or any government for that matter, is likely to invest.  If the interpretations of laws regarding aquatic archaeological finds remain tilted against private companies and treasure seekers to this extent, it is unclear how many shipwrecks and historical artifacts will unnecessarily remain lost.